Archive for the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Category

The Great Indoors: Sensing Carbon Monoxide Levels and Indoor Air Quality [GUEST POST]

By May 4th, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Comment


SensorDrone tool measuring carbon monoxide in ppm (parts per million) Image credit: Kevin Webster

Per the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors.

At the same time, when we think of citizen science, our mind’s eye often pictures the great outdoors: wide expanses of open space, jutting mountains, birds in trees, and frogs sitting near meandering streams. In part, that’s due to a perception that science takes place outdoors. Also, many of us want to spend more time there, so when we get excited about a project, we tend to migrate towards counting birds, or reporting when the first flowers bud and open in our back yards.

In the end, it’s important for us to understand our normal environment. That would seem to put a significant importance in understanding our indoor air quality where we live, work, and play.

In most places in America, outdoor air quality is actually very good. Certainly, in the densest of urban areas with tall buildings, lots of tunnels, and larger than normal vehicle traffic, we may see a degradation of outdoor air quality. Sometimes this is visible, and sometimes its only measurable with sensors and instruments.

Outside of those urban areas though, we tend to see very good air. It’s breathable, and primarily healthy. That’s not to say there’s nothing to be concerned about in our outdoor environments. In fact, there are a few Citizen Science projects out there already looking into outdoor air quality. Take as an example the work being done by citizen scientists with AirCasting.

What the emphasis on outdoor air quality sampling does is simply imply that most of us think about air quality in perhaps a backwards sense We should really be looking indoors for the first signs of trouble. After all, the air in our homes, offices, and factories all originates outdoors.

The systems we have for circulation, climate control, and ventilation in buildings all rely upon fresh sources of air being pulled into our spaces from outside. The processes affecting that air once it’s inside can create some of our most problematic air quality issues. These days, new sensors and instruments exist that can help us understand those processes and their effects on our health and well being.

Carbon Monoxide

Let’s look initially at carbon monoxide in particular.


Carbon monoxide molecule Image: Wikimedia

Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete burning of materials. It’s colorless, odorless, and it exists just about everywhere. Many states now have laws about carbon monoxide detectors, and their placement in homes, hotels, and other places of business. In part though, those regulations aren’t set up in such a way that tell the whole story of the carbon monoxide problem.

For example, a carbon monoxide detector that you would buy in a home improvement store and install in your home will alert you to a problem in one of two ways, most likely:

1.) At somewhere between 70 to 150 parts per million, the average household detector will alarm after 60 to 240 minutes of exposure.

2.) At 150 to 400 parts per million, the alarm is prescribed to alarm at 10 to 50 minutes of exposure.

For most healthy people, this is enough of an alert to prevent unconsciousness, and potentially death. That’s specifically the purpose of these alarms. To that end, they are very valuable, and prevent disastrous situations.

At the same time, many global environmental agencies would indicate that long term exposure to much, much lower levels of carbon monoxide has negative health effects. In particular, asthmatics, those with heart conditions, and potentially pregnant women shouldn’t be exposed to more than 10 parts per million for any length of time.

So standard alarms won’t help us understand those damaging situations. So here’s an opportunity for concerned Citizen Scientists to use modern sensors to have a positive impact. It’s simple and relatively affordable for anyone to purchase a sensor that will tell them exact amounts of carbon monoxide in their indoor air at all times, not simply when potentially critical amounts are present.

There are many devices on the market that display carbon monoxide levels on a digital readout, in real time. To be sure, even 10 parts per million isn’t common place, and would generally warn us that a larger problem is present. At the same time, creating a larger understanding of what carbon monoxide levels exist in certain types of places would benefit indoor air quality scientists. It would be great to see these kinds of studies being done, so we can develop a sounder policy and strategy on how it should be measured, and where.

For example:

1. Are CO levels different in certain types of businesses?
2. What are CO levels like in hotel rooms near heated indoor pools, as opposed to those without such amenities?
3. What time of year do we see the biggest spikes in indoor carbon monoxide levels?
4. In general, are standard CO alarms doing enough to maintain good indoor air quality?

Many of us have theories about all of the above, but collecting data from people on a daily basis, all over the world, from different walks of life, would go a long way towards a deeper understanding.

Indoor air quality doesn’t begin and end with carbon monoxide. While it’s a “high profile” measurement, other kinds of sensors are now readily available that measure other pollutants. More and more types of sensors are entering the marketplace each year that will assist citizen scientists and their research partners in understanding other things, such as radon, radiation, Volatile Organic Compounds and particulates, molds, and more. In the end, it will benefit everyone to spend some time understanding all kinds of air quality: indoor and out.

So what can you do? Lots of things!

First step would be to acquire a carbon monoxide detector that has a real time digital readout. (You can try out tools like SensorDrone that detect multiple variables like gas, light, humidity, etc.) You’ll want to know what carbon monoxide levels are in places you spend the most time. Then, start recording levels at different places you go. Make a journal that describes both the levels of CO in various areas, and why you think CO might be present.

Some of the places you will want to check:

Any place using a heater of some sort.
Anywhere where engines are running in enclosed spaces.
Hockey Rinks.
Hotel rooms.
Indoor swimming pools.

All of these types of places have the possibility of having higher than normal carbon monoxide concentrations.

If we find a place with abnormally high readings, such as anything over 5 PPM on a regular basis, let them know. Never assume a business understands what their day to day operations are doing to indoor air quality.

It’s one of the reasons citizen science can help with this kind of study. There is a real lack of awareness when it comes to carbon monoxide, essentially since everyone tends to feel they are safe in areas that have alarms.

By knowing more about carbon monoxide, you can help educate everyone around you. And you can help air quality scientists do real studies that promote good standards.

90% of your life is spent indoors. We need to spend more time thinking about it. With modern sensor technology, you can play a huge role in getting more people thinking about it.


Kevin Websteris an outdoors-man, writer, and marketer. He currently is the Sales and Marketing Manager at Sensorcon in Buffalo, NY. His interests are science, logic, grammar, and music. The order of those importances varies.

Recording The Noise Scape of Your Life with NoiseTube

By February 19th, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Comment

NoiseTube allows citizen scientists to monitor noise pollution with a mobile app.

Come to your senses! SciStarter has curated a list of projects for all 5 senses.

Pristine view or noise pollution?

Pristine view or noise pollution?

I was overjoyed the first time I heard the peaceful fountain, twittering bird song, and gentle rustle of wind through the trees oustide my office window. Then, one morning in early January, I opened the windows to a cacophony of new, and unwelcomed, sounds – cars on the freeway, backhoes and bulldozers beeping, chainsaws buzzing. The developers had arrived with their manmade noise pollution and associated health risks. But how loud is this new racket wafting in on the breeze?

NoiseTube was developed by the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris and the BrusSense Team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel to empower citizen scientists to measure and record their daily exposure to noise. According to Dr. Ellie D’Hondt, a scientist with BrusSense, “The volunteers helping out in these campaigns are essential… we are showing that participatory maps are just as useful as the ones made by official approaches.”

Once the free mobile app (available for iOS, Android, and Java ME-based smartphones) is downloaded, your mobile phone is transformed into a noise-sensing machine. Curious how noisy the school run is? Is the ‘sound of silence’ really deafening? Are theme parks louder than crashing waves? Simply launch the app and record your noise exposure on-the-go to find out. Once your tracks are uploaded, you can compare your experiences with others around the globe.

Since its launch in 2008, over 2250 citizen scientists representing more than 652 cities in 75 countries have contributed sound tracks to the project. The top seven cities – Paris, Brussels, Zagreb, Hoeilaart, Aachen, Brooklyn, and Braunschweig; account for over 1000 minutes, or 16.67 hours, of recordings.


Citizen scientists identify traffic noise in Wommelgem, Belgium.

After analyzing data from just one city, Wommelgem, Belgium, Dr. D’Hondt explains, “I learned interesting things – where red lights were, where there were traffic slowers, and how locals would related these to colours on the noise map.” But how can a noise map show where red lights are? Through collaboration and feedback from local citizen scientists, Dr. D’Hondt discovered that a red light was located on the high dB(A) side of a roundabout (pictured). Eventually, Dr. D’Hondt would like to understand how loudness correlates positively and/or negatively with fun experiences.

While helping scientists understand how people perceive their daily soundscape, researchers hope to engage city planners by providing them with evidence to improve zoning and building regulations. “Getting the techniques to be accepted by authorities is still difficult at times.” Dr. D’Hondt observes. “Cities struggle with these norms [noise assessment guidelines] and often don’t have the means to include more modern techniques [such as participatory sensing].” The BrusSense lab has shown that citizen scientists contribute high quality data and that “Particpatory Noise Mapping Works!” – supporting the continued acceptance and democratisation of grassroots citizen scientist projects to explore the world around us.

Armed with my NoiseTube, I’m dying to know how the backhoes and bulldozers compare to rustling leaves or the cheering crowds at this weekend’s race. How might your experiences with fresh crunching snow compare to those of crashing waves? Why not grab your mobile phone and record the soundscape of our modern lives?

Photos: Melinda T. Hough and NoiseTube

Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of life science and helping the general public explore their world. She holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh for research into how antibiotics kill bacteria, was a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and is a published photographer. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science.  Not content to stay stateside, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80 or plotting her next epic adventure.

Homebrew Sensing Project: DIY Environmental Monitoring

By February 3rd, 2014 at 12:44 am | Comment 1

The non-profit Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) previously won a Knight News Challenge in 2011 and received $500,000 to fund a tool kit and online community for citizen-based, grassroots data gathering and research. The second Knight News Challenge the group won, a $350,000 Knight award focused on health data, will allow the group to build and deploy inexpensive technologies for monitoring.

Connections between the hacker culture of the 1970s and emerging DIY science continue with the funding of the Homebrew Sensing Project. Born of Public Lab, this project aims to create low-cost sensor technologies for environmental research and monitoring. Following its namesake’s (the homebrew computer club) lead, this project’s participant composition complicates distinctions between expert and hobbyist or amateur.

The three individuals leading up the project are Shannon Dosemagen, Jeffrey Warren, and Mathew Lippincott. I was able to chat with Dosemagen, also a co-Founder of Public Lab, via email. Situating the Homebrew Sensing Project within the Public Lab’s effort tells us a lot about the motivations behind the project. “Public lab,” Dosemagen writes, “isn’t just a nonprofit that creates tools, we’re interested in creating a community.” Connecting with community organizations, NGOs, and research institutions they have created an extensive network that helps connect with a community and connect communities.

Connecting communities and providing a space for them to interact, Public Lab provides what Dosemagen describes as “a space where people with different expertise can interact.” This is a particularly important interaction among different kinds of expertise, including specialized technical as well as local knowledge, and reflects the efforts of Public Lab, Dosemagen tells us, to “recognize that not only researchers linked to academic institutions bring value and expertise to projects such as this, but that everyone can bring something to the table through the experience and knowledge sets that they have.”

Engagement among experts is demonstrated through the “barn raising” activities, events where members of the community come together to create something (be it tool or tutorials), Public Lab undertakes. Winning a another Knight Challenge means that the group can continue such efforts with the Homebrew Sensing Project. This project aims to address growing concerns about exposure to various human-made hazards and the associated risks, including health risks. To do this, the group wants to create inexpensive tools that can be used with mobile devices, allowing community members to take readings and analyze the information without the high costs associated with traditional lab testing. The group will undertake these efforts by refining their hardware and software platforms and developing new ones. As well, Dosemagen writes that a “portion of this grant will go towards supporting an outreach role and community partners,” which means that further community building and crossing of boundaries between communities will be part of this important initiative. If you’re interested in learning more about Public Lab or following this project you can find more information about the project in their news release.

Public Lab’s Homebrew Sensing Project extends their work on a DIY spectrometry project. The initial project, Dosemagen noted, began a few years ago and publicly “launched in 2012 with a Kickstarter” and the results have been impressive. To date, she tells us, Public Lab has ”over 2,000 accounts on, over 14,000 spectral samples uploaded, [and] 750 members in the spectrometry Google Group.” In addition to all of this work, the group has “shipped 3,500 spectrometers worldwide that range between a price point of $10 and $70,” with the price point being a particularly notable feature in how accessible that is when compared with traditional spectrometers that typically begin at several thousand dollars.

Ashley Rose Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. In August 2014 she will join the faculty in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue. Ashley studies how emerging technologies may be changing science communication. She also teaches scientific and technical communication courses as well as an introductory course on science, technology, and society. You can find Ashley on Twitter as @ashleyrkelly

Songs From the Citizen Science Frontier

By October 13th, 2013 at 1:11 am | Comment


Citizen science has its own song! Monty Harper, the musician behind “Citizen Scientist,” needs help from you to compile a slideshow for the piece. If you have photos of you or others participating in citizen science, you can submit them to be included in a slideshow music video for his song! The deadline is November 12, 2013.

Listen to “Citizen Scientist” and learn more about how you can contribute to this citizen science project for a song about citizen science!

About the Project

Each participant will receive a complimentary copy of the “Citizen Scientist” song. Five participants will also receive a copy of Monty Harper’s Songs From the Science Frontier CD. More details here.

About the Song

“Citizen Scientist” was written by Monty Harper for his Born to Do Science café, a program that features scientists explaining their research to kids in 3rd – 8th grade. The song was inspired by Dr. Janette Steets at Oklahoma State University and her research on mixed gardens (ornamental flowers with vegetables) and pollinators. Listen to it here!

Monty Harper performing “Citizen Scientist” on Youtube:

That Moment When You Realize How Little You Actually Know

By July 15th, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Comment


I like to call it an antipiphany* – that striking realization of the magnitude of what can be known, which reduces what you actually understand to a paltry amount.

I’ve seen it again and again with graduate students: they enroll feeling like smarty-pants, and within a year they are humbled by an antipiphany. Eventually settling into the comfort of not-knowing-it-all, they are motivated for discoveries, open to an epiphany.

Now a study by Aaron Price and Hee-Sun Lee found that participants in a citizen-science project, Citizen Sky, evaluated their own knowledge about science as lower after 6 months in the project compared to when they started the project.

What was the nature of participants’ apparent antipiphany? Through interviews, Price and Lee confirmed that participants developed a greater appreciation for how much they did not know and for how much they could potentially learn.

This appreciation was in conjunction with an increase in positive attitudes towards science. During those same 6 months, participants tended to seek out more science news and even other citizen-science projects. Realizing how little they knew simply drove them to want to know more.

A common message from citizen science projects is an empowering emphasis on the expertise that participants bring to the table. But does that emphasis encourage learning? Price and Lee’s study highlights for me a tightrope to be walked in citizen science: along with the empowering ‘anyone-can-be-an-expert’ message, participants need experiences that lead to an antipiphany, to understand and feel motivated by how much more there is to learn.


Citizen Sky Project

How did Citizen Sky, a project with over 6,000 registrants, walk the tightrope? Price and Lee took an in-depth look at project design. They outlined five design principles for citizen science projects.

“Design Principle 1: Use a context where volunteers’ contribution is necessary and meaningful for their scientific inquiry.”

In other words, citizen science should involve authentic research only, preferably testing hypotheses that could not otherwise be tested without help from the public. In Citizen Sky, participants were monitoring and trying to understand the 5th brightest star (epsilon) in the constellation Auriga. It is too bright for the highly sensitive detectors on most professional telescopes, and that’s why amateur astronomers were needed. Epsilon Aurigae isn’t really one star, but two or more: one supergiant and one (or two) almost dead stars, buried in a cloud of dust. The supergiant and the stars in the dust cloud revolve around each other, and one of these predictable eclipses, between 2009 and 2011, was the focus of the Citizen Sky project.

“Design Principle 2: Provide Internet resources to help volunteers interact with peers and scientists.”

In Citizen Sky, participants could interact by supplying data (brightness estimates of epsilon Aurigae), using web tools to explore everyone’s data, participating in online forums, participating in monthly live chats, and forming collaborative teams focused around mini-research projects.

“Design Principle 3: Actively involve scientists in a role of teaching and communication.”

In Citizen Sky, participants had access to professional researchers through an interactive blog, live chat sessions, and regular feedback, advice, and general support via the project website.

“Design Principle 4: Support participants for analyzing and presenting their own data.”

Authenticity in collecting and analyzing data is a key part of this principle. In Citizen Sky, participants could view graphs of their data superimposed over the data from everyone else. With the help of tutorials, they could explore what it might mean.

“Design Principle 5: Encourage participants to become an active member of a research community.”

Education researchers have long known the value of group work. Citizen Sky had dedicated space where participants could opt to form teams to work on a research project. The project even provided private areas for team members to chat and share documents. Participants formed 23 teams. Each had the intended goal of submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed astronomical journal.

Most citizen-science projects contain one or two of these design features, but Citizen Sky met ALL of these design principles.

Since Citizen Sky offered a veritable tapas menu of a little bit of everything, Price and Lee were able to tease apart which design elements fostered positive changes in participants’ attitudes about science. The answer they found is…

(drum roll, please)

…social activities!

If people spent time in the chat sessions with peers and scientists, then they learned more (including learning how much they did not know). Like the adage, you get out what you put in, participants who put energy towards the project gain the most from the project.

Price and Lee suggest that a sense of ownership in the scientific process and its products as well as a sense of community are two essential features of citizen science. People should not feel like anonymous data collectors or data processors. They must know each other. They must be real, just as the research must be real. Involvement only in the act of collecting data for science may not be enough to cause positive changes in attitudes toward science. Participants need to do more. And they need to do it together.

Just when I thought that I understood citizen science, Price and Lee’s results gave me the antipiphany of realizing how much more there is to understand. If we can design our citizen-science projects to bring scientific thinking into everyday conversations, then more people may realize there is so much more to learn. In this way, citizen science can take us one step closer in preparing our society to address complex issues and solve big problems. Just like the humbled graduate students, after antipiphanies in the online world of citizen science, perhaps we’ll all gain a collective e-piphany.


*Anyone know if there is already a word for this realization?

This post originally appeared on PLOS CitizenSci .


Price, C. A. and Lee, H.-S. (2013), Changes in participants’ scientific attitudes and epistemological beliefs during an astronomical citizen science project. J. Res. Sci. Teach.. doi: 10.1002/tea.21090

Caren Cooper is a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where she carries out research on birds almost exclusively with data collected by willing and able hobbyists. Caren has contributed guest blogposts about the history of citizen science for Scientific American. Twitter: @CoopSciScoop