Smell MyCity app combats air pollution

Louisville, KY is the site of the national rollout of the Smell MyCity app created at Carnegie Mellon University.

Smell MyCity app combats air pollution
Louisville, KY is the site of the national rollout of the Smell MyCity app created at Carnegie Mellon University.

TechRepublic Senior Editor Teena Maddox attended the national rollout for the Smell MyCity app on March 29, 2019. She spoke with the creators and partners behind the app: Eboni Cochran, co-director of REACT, Ashley Orgain, global director of advocacy and sustainability at Seventh Generation, Beatrice Dias, project director at the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, Paul Dille, Sr. software developer at the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ted Smith, deputy director of University of Louisville’s Envirome Institute. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Teena Maddox: I’m here in Louisville, KY, and we’re here to learn a little bit more about the Smell MyCity app, which is doing its national rollout today. Tell me about the app, and what a difference it’s going to make for Rubbertown.

Eboni Cochran: Well basically, the app is designed to be a tool for residents who detect odors either within their neighborhoods or in any location where they detect an odor. And for this neighborhood, in particular, we’re standing in the Park DuValle neighborhood in Louisville, KY. And, this neighborhood is one of the neighborhoods that react.

We received many calls from residents who are trying to figure out what the odor is in the air, and what they should do about it. So we believe that by informing residents on how to use the app, it will increase the number of complaints to the regulatory agency, and that can push them to conduct thorough investigations, which could possibly change the behavior of the chemical facilities depending on violations and fines, and those sorts of things.

Teena Maddox: Why is smell a problem in this particular neighborhood? Is it the industrial plants?

Eboni Cochran: So, this neighborhood, Park DuValle, is one of the neighborhoods adjacent to a cluster of chemical plants commonly referred to as Rubbertown. There are about 11 Title V chemical plants, and they produce odors. They release chemicals that are hazardous. And so, the odors that come from those chemicals are not only a nuisance to the people who live in this neighborhood and other neighborhoods adjacent to these chemical plants, but they also have a really high potential for health effects.

SEE: Smart cities: A business leader’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Teena Maddox: What are some of the things that you hope the app creates?

Eboni Cochran: So, one of the most important things that is going to be vital to the success of this app is number one, that the community is educated. All of the community is educated on how to use it, why to use it, and the importance of using it. But secondly, it’s extremely important for the second piece of this thing to be successful is that the regulatory agency, the air pollution control district, needs to come up with a process of what they’re going to do once they begin to receive these odor complaints through the app.

If the air pollution control district does not do their part, it’s going to jeopardize this whole project. Because this app is not just for the sake of reporting, it’s for the sake of holding people accountable, holding industry accountable, and by holding them accountable, them changing their behaviors.

Maybe using safer technology, using safer chemicals, alternative chemicals that are less toxic. So that’s what we’re hoping for as an outcome.

Teena Maddox: Tell me about Seventh Generation and its role in the Smell MyCity app.

Ashley Orgain: Seventh Generation is a mission-driven business that takes responsibility for the products that we make and their impact on the world very seriously. We have a fundamental belief that all people deserve access to healthy products, and that the way those products are being made aren’t impacting the communities in which we all live negatively.

One of the issues that’s most important to us is people having access to clean and healthy air. Currently, in today’s time, access to clean air is a privilege. We are really, really honored and proud to be partnering with the organizations that are rolling out the Smell MyCity app, to be able to support a platform that is going to give people access to data in their communities about the sources of pollution in which they live, so that we can actually change the system, and so all have access to clean and healthy air.

Teena Maddox: And now the app started out in Pittsburgh, and now it’s here in Louisville. And, you have gotten involved starting with Louisville, which is part of the national rollout?

Ashley Orgain: Yes.

Teena Maddox: And what are some of the other cities where you anticipated going?

Ashley Orgain: Louisville is the first after Pittsburgh, and then we’re going to Portland, OR next.

SEE: How smart tech is transforming the transportation industry (Tech Pro Research)

Teena Maddox: Tell me about Carnegie Mellon University’s role in the creation of the Smell MyCity app.

Beatrice Dias: So the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which is where I work. We started with the Smell Pittsburgh app, which is an app very similar to Smell MyCity. And that we developed in collaboration with community members in Pittsburgh. The app came about through conversations with community members, because oftentimes when they talk about their experience with pollution, they talk about how it smelled that day.

The smell was a big part of the story. It’s oftentimes we take for granted our human senses because we rely on machines to tell us what the weather is, what the air quality is… and the numbers are important. But our senses, human senses can also be a powerful tool in understanding how pollution is traveling to our cities.

So, the community wanted a way to document the experiences with pollution through documenting the smell reports. And so that’s where the app was born in Pittsburgh. And, because it’s taken root in Pittsburgh and being such a powerful tool for getting community voice out there, we wanted to see if there’s a national audience for this. Can other communities benefit from this?

And we did hear from other communities like Louisville, who asked about, well, can the app work there, too? And instead of building one app per city, which we probably wouldn’t have the capacity to do, we thought of building a national app. Why? What’s more powerful than a nation of people talking about how they experience pollution on a day-to-day basis, and talking about the smells… the smells that come with pollution often.

SEE: How smart cities can create a road map to reduce risk and improve resiliency (TechRepublic)

Teena Maddox: Now, are a lot of the apps that you guys build at CMU, are they open source where other people can go in like this and change them?

Beatrice Dias: Most of our technology, if not all of it, is open source. And we don’t just build apps, this is actually a new venture for us relatively speaking. The CREATE Lab has been around for over 10 years now. And we started with this idea that technology, robotics technology specifically, shouldn’t be just in a laboratory, or just for educators, or just for technologists.

A technologist should be for the community. And so, we started with establishing an outreach off the lab, which is very rare in a robotics lab. I don’t know many others that have it, so we have a sustained relationship with the community—be it educators in K-12 education, or higher education, or community advocates, or air quality advocates.

We have built a network of relationships with those communities, and we maintain those relationships. And through that comes ideas for technology as opposed to let’s build the next cool gadget that will sell for millions, that’s not what we’re in it for. Our lab is focused on building tools that can be empowering for the community.

Teena Maddox: Tell me about how you developed the app, and what you had to do to make it work for a national audience.

Paul Dille: So for a national audience, it was important to have some level of customization to the app, because initially we started off with Smell Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh’s in the name, and there’s that sense of community already built into it. But we didn’t want to have separate apps for every single city that we were launching.

So we wanted one single national app, but we still wanted some level of customization. And the way to handle that was, depending on the communities we were working with, or the local health departments, we were able to customize some of the fields. So some of the descriptions in the app there would be specific odor smells as an example for that region.

For their specific descriptions and learn more text, that’d be specific to that region. Also, there would be a picture that would kind of display what your city is. So in Louisville, you have the Louisville skyline for that. But we wanted a sense of community built into a national app, but all the data we have is stored locally on our side in a backend that we built, and the data itself, anyone nationally can download it and pull from.

Teena Maddox: Now how’d you come up with the name Smell MyCity, because it’s pretty clever?

Paul Dille: So it’s kind of like a cutesy name that we came up with. Initially, we started off with Smell Pittsburgh, and we’re like MyCity was kind of a template that we had as just a fill in. So we’re like well, what if we just make that the actual name of the app? And we went and looked online and no one had that website domain yet, which is surprising because usually nouns like that were already taken years ago. And we were like, well, it’s catchy, it sticks in the head—let’s make that as our app name.

SEE: Louisville to co-create a smart city with its citizen scientists (ZDNet)

Teena Maddox: Tell me about UofL’s role in the Smell MyCity app.

Ted Smith: So the University of Louisville has a new research institute called the Envirome Institute, and our focus is 100% on the environmental factors that determine human health outcomes. And we over the years built up the field of environmental cardiology, which is how air pollution creates heart disease.

And so when Carnegie Mellon had come up with this interesting way to get people involved in reporting what could be indicators of air pollution, we thought it might be a natural connection for our work in health to connect these odor reports to help outcomes. And so we’re interested in seeing this crowdsource technology turn into a new clinical public health research.

Teena Maddox: So tell me a little bit about how the app itself came about. And, you had told me about your son’s involvement.

Ted Smith: So a few years ago, my son, a sophomore in high school, was heading into summer vacation without plans, and as a good parent that was not an acceptable situation to not have plans. And so, he had heard about the Smell Pittsburgh application, which was just this application in Pittsburgh.

And he went to GitHub, and he downloaded the code, and he decided he wanted to learn how to make an app. And so, that summer of him trying to rebuild Smell Pittsburgh to make it Smell Louisville brought us closer to the team at Carnegie Mellon, because he’s just a young person and they took pity on him, and he went over there and they started to work together on building a national version of the app because we had expressed this interest in localizing it other places.

So, fast forward to today, it’s really gratifying to see this newer, bigger vision, partly because of that kind of curiosity.

SEE: Smart cities: A guide for tech and business leaders (Tech Pro Research)

Teena Maddox: So tell me also about the community’s response to the app.

Ted Smith: The community here in Louisville has a history of being concerned about odors, and whether those are industrial odors, like those that come from the chemical plants nearby here or even agricultural odors like in the slaughterhouse nearby in Butchertown, there’s been a history of people wishing that there could be more responsive to their concerns about odors.

Because a lot of times when people smell things that disturb them, they have reason to believe that there could be health problems. And so, this kind of crowdsourcing is a fresh way to bring collective voices together.

I’m adding a data point to a map, and the more data points we have in that map that say the same thing it is probably an indicator of something serious. And so we’re very interested in seeing that.

Teena Maddox: And tell me a little bit more about the data. I mean, smart cities, and having citizens involved in sharing data. How does all that play a role?

Ted Smith: So this fits very nicely with our smart city strategy because we’re so used to thinking there must be some government agency or some company that is keeping track of things. And it really is a little bit disempowering. And I think a true smart city is one that is really effectively getting the input of their citizens at all times.

And this is just a great example of that for air quality, but there are hundreds of other ways a smart city could be smarter if it were fully engaged with its citizenry, listening to them, responding to their concerns. That makes it a living city, not just a sort of a data management city.

Teena Maddox: And it shows how important the voice of its citizens can be.

Ted Smith: That theoretically is the founding of our country. So, we want citizens’ voices used to be really important in the way public policy works.

SEE: Smart cities and IoT: Must-read coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Teena Maddox: Is there anything else about the app that you wanted to add that we haven’t touched upon?

Ted Smith: The thing about these kinds of apps—and it’s critically important in whatever city ultimately ends up rolling this out—is really thinking through getting the word out, and giving people a sense that there’s real gratification that you get from doing something like this. It’s a hard habit to build apps as you know, are habits. And, to get a new habit is hard, but you know, it’s really important that we don’t think about just the launch of this thing, but we think about its growth, and what it’s going to take to nurture the use of it.

Teena Maddox: And is it available on the app stores?

Ted Smith: So it’s available on the Google Play store and on the App Store.

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