See how a Brooklyn nonprofit is using the internet of things for environmental justice

HabitatMaps has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an air quality monitoring sensor that it wants people to wear so it can collect data on pollution in New York. The campaign is more about generating publicity and covering the costs of manufacturing the sensors, but the approach to gathering data shows one of the promises of the internet of things.

HabitatMaps is an environmental justice group formed in 2006 that started out trying to make interactive online maps of places filled with historical facts and information for residents. In 2011 it released an Android App called AirCasting that used the microphones on the phone to measure noise pollution. From that point on its focus changed to take advantage of smartphones and sensors to gather data that would be more complete and relevant to fight pollution.


This month it launched the AirBeam, a $200 air quality monitor that measure particulate matter as well as humidity and temperature. While the city of New York already has dozens of such sensors, they are generally high up, where the air is more or less clearer and therefore those sensors don’t measure things on as granular level as hundred of people moving throughout the street could.

Michael Heimbinder, executive director at HabitatMaps, said that the nonprofit had developed the cheapest, portable air quality monitoring sensor it could in hopes of gathering data that it can then use to make policy arguments in the city. It’s also helpful for individuals who may want to change their own habits. For example, below is a view of Heimbinder’s commute. Red is the highest level of pollution, and you can see his rush hour travels over the Manhattan Bridge are exposing him to a lot of pollution.


If he can change the times he commutes or the routes he might be better off. Showing such data to people might get them to change their habits, but it might also get them more excited about some of the campaigns and issues that HabitatMaps fights for. This is a perfect example of using sensors to get a large volume of cheap data.

While people may fight over what to do about the data or event how the particulate matter actually affects health, the data itself will become a valuable public health resource. Heimbinder expects that within the next six months he’ll build an API that will let other people use the data collected by the sensors. I’d love to see it on so people could see the air quality from nearby sensors even if they don’t have one.

Heimbinder acknowledged that many of the places that most need the AirBeam sensor aren’t in areas that typically sponsor Kickstarter campaigns, but he’s hoping it gets enough interest to lower the cost of production for some of the materials he has to buy for the sensor. It also will raise awareness for HabitatMaps and its programs. For example, kids in San Francisco and New York City are using AirBeam and Aircast to monitor pollution in their neighborhoods.

The real question for the year ahead will be if Heimbinder can get enough of these sensors on the streets to gather relevant and high-quality data for changing policies. It’s a tall order, but it’s also a testament to the promise of the internet of things that a nonprofit can create hardware, crowdfund the devices and get those sensors on the streets with the goal of improving the world.

As a note to folks interested in the campaign, the sensors currently use standard Bluetooth and GPS on the phones while working, so they are a bit of a battery suck. However, the idea of being able to measure the quality of air walking by a pack of smokers or inside a restaurant after the kitchen has just burned food or even after a parade of diesel trucks go by is really compelling.