Carnegie Mellon scientists use app to track foul odors in Pittsburgh

Ashley Murray at Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:If you smell something, say something. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University want Pittsburghers to put their collective noses to the task and report foul smells using a mobile reporting application called Smell PGH.

Since the app launched last year, more than 1,300 users have reported foul smells more than 4,300 times — most of which they’ve described as “industrial,” “sulfur” or “woodsmoke.”

The app was developed at CMU’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab.

“The app is really about the community,” said Beatrice Dias, project director at the CREATE Lab. “To show that you’re not alone in your negative experiences of pollution impact.”

Smartphone users can create a “smell report” within the app, which has the capability to alert the Allegheny County Health Department.

Health department spokeswoman Melissa Wade said the agency has received and followed-up on 3,000 reports generated from the app.

Users can also view a real-time map of all smell reports in and around the city. A new feature added last month allows users to go back in time and play a time-lapse animation of little colored triangles — green, yellow and red, symbolizing varying degrees of smell — that pop up and disappear as odors were reported….

“The goal is I’m trying to predict the smell in the next few hours, like a weather forecast,” Mr. Hsu said. “Let’s say today from 12 to 1 p.m. we have 10 smell reports. I can check not only the smell reports, but the data from other sensor stations around Pittsburgh, so I know during this hour what the reading is of all the air-quality related variables, like PM 2.5, like sulfur and nitrogen oxides, [and] the wind speed, the wind direction. There are a lot of parameters we need to consider.”…

Another goal of this citizen science initiative, Mr. Hsu said, is to improve communication between the public and governmental regulation agencies, like the health department.

“Before this technology if you smelled something bad, you might not be sure if this came from ambient air, your neighborhood or just traffic issues,” Mr. Hsu said. “But if you use the app, you can see a lot of your neighbors are reporting, too. And then maybe the government can use this to see the problems in a city.”…(More)”.