Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The 'Breathe Project' lets residents watch neighborhood pollution levels change by the minute.
A group dedicated to fixing Pittsburgh's air pollution problem has rolled out a new interactive tool that allows residents to watch the particulate matter in the air rise and fall minute to minute.
The Breathe Project, a local coalition funded by the Heinz Endowments, has launched four cameras overlooking four parts of the city, where viewers can zoom in on pollution sources and track neighborhood air-quality data.
With "Breathe Cam," users can click between cameras overlooking downtown, North Shore, Oakland, and Mon Valley. Measurements for fine particles, RS particles, and sulfur dioxide measurements (recorded by Allegheny County Health Department air-monitoring stations) are listed below each view. Clicking on the North Shore camera (below), lines point toward Avalon and Lawrenceville on opposite ends of the lens, with their data right underneath:
Users can also click on a specific location and watch the pollution levels change over the course of a full day. For example, here's a look at the downtown side of the double-decker Fort Pitt Bridge earlier this Monday:
The technology of Breathe Cam was developed by the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. The Allegheny County Health Department and local environmental groups are also partnering up with CREATE on their own efforts to track and improve the region's air quality.
Pittsburgh's air quality has improved quite a bit since the early 20th century, when late-morning skies could get so dark with pollution that downtown streetlights had to stay on through the afternoon. Over the past two decades, power plants have switched from coal to natural gas, which has helped lower pollution levels. So has the introduction of cleaner-burning diesel engines.
But the city still has some of the worst air in the U.S., placing in the top 10 metro regions for most short-term and year-round particulate matter according to EPA data. And cancer rates remain much higher inside Allegheny County than in the rest of Western Pennsylvania. According to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study published last year, emissions from diesel fuel, formaldehyde, coke oven emissions, carbon tetrachloride, and benzene are especially of concern to the region.
The hope is that with Breathe Cam, Pittsburghers feel a little more empowered to track and fight the air pollution that still plagues the city.