How dirty is Auckland’s air?
A new smartphone app that allows users to check Auckland’s air quality at any given time features in a climate change festival where science meets art.
The TEMP festival, running until April 8 at the Corban Estate Arts Centre in Henderson and Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi, showcases a range of interactive exhibits to help people learn about our changing climate.
During the past year, collaborators on five projects have been working with schoolchildren to find creative, practical ways to represent the issues.
That work culminated in a series of installations, including a giant rope drawing depicting ocean patterns around Antarctica; an artwork representing the 10,000kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) the average New Zealand household contributes each year and a community garden with a large-scale edible gateway to encourage backyard horticulture.
In another collaboration, Niwa air quality scientists have been working with artists to create an app for smart phones.
Using up-to-the-minute data, the app will show the effect of air pollution, wind, humidity and other air data on a virtual tree.
Science reporter Jamie Morton talked to Niwa scientist Gustavo Olivares about the new app.
Can you tell me about the new app: what does it show and how does it calculate levels? How might someone use it?
There are a couple of parts to the app.
In one sense, it can be seen as an augmented reality visualisation tool for air quality and weather data.
But it can also be thought as an education tool to present atmospheric science topics and concepts in a more engaging way than just plain text.
When you open the app, you’re presented with a quick “manual” of its functionality.
From there you move on to the “seek” screen that works as a virtual magnifying glass so that when you “look” at one of the special markers, things come to life on the screen.
One of the markers is a tree stump and when you point your device to look at it, a virtual tree appears on the screen with clouds that change colour, particles that move at different speeds, its leaves also move and there is a thermometer-like gauge at the centre of the tree.
This tree is what we use to visualise the air quality and weather data from Auckland.
The wind speed in Titirangi controls the speed at which the leaves move, the relative humidity at Titirangi is represented as the gauge at the centre of the tree.
The colour of the clouds is controlled by the concentrations of NO2 [nitrogen dioxide] in Auckland while the speed of the particles is controlled by the PM10 measurements in Auckland. [PM10 is a measurement of particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter].
The other markers bring to life different aspects of the Waitakere ranges forest.
We have a sleeping weta, a morepork, a kereru, the wind. All of these have their particular sound and animation.
At the bottom of the screen you have a few links to learn more about traffic emissions, air, the forest that take you first to brief statements about the different topics that link to more extensive documentation in the project website.
As for audience, the team developed the app to support the installation at Te Uru Art Gallery so we expect that people will use it there but if they get the markers from the website, they can re-visit the experience anywhere.
The visualisation is rather crude, and particularly the air quality aspects, don’t relate to any regulatory levels so it is not intended to be used to decide whether to go out or not but rather to have a qualitative view of the air in Auckland at that moment.
The wind and humidity data are taken from the Open Weather Map and the air quality data from International Air Quality Index project.
For the app, we take those data and convert them into categories.
There are 10 levels of wind speed, PM10 and humidity [and] five levels of NO2. We tweak those levels so that the visualisation is as dynamic as possible.
What prompted the idea and how was it developed?
When we started discussing this art collaboration we had in mind the concept of “making the invisible visible” so we explored several topics that could feed into that like the evapo-transpiration of the plants, particle formation in the atmosphere and others.
It was then that we approached Imersia, who have been working on virtual and augmented reality for many years, and ask them how feasible would this be and what would we need to make it work.
That was around the time Pokemon Go was starting to be really popular.
From there we thrashed some ideas and finally settled on a forest as a framework and a tree that would respond to the ambient conditions in the city as the central piece.
Roy Davies’s team worked really hard to make our vision a reality.
Once the concept of the tree was defined, we worked with Imersia to send live weather and air quality data to their servers so that the tree would respond to them.
You’ve had input from artist Sue Jowsey. How has this enhanced the design and what’s it been like working as a scientist-artist team?
It’s been quite an experience having scientists and artists working together.
Sue’s contributions have been critical. She suggested using the forest as a framework to explore air quality and her approach to the visuals is brilliant.
We’ve been working on this for more than a year and it’s been quite a challenge to accommodate everybody’s way of working.
One of the most motivating but at the same time challenging parts of this collaboration is the level of creativity that we manage to achieve working together.
It is motivating because you see ideas popping up that wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the fact that we have scientists and artists in the same room but at the same time is challenging because our scope kept growing and growing.
How would you describe air quality in Auckland and are air pollution levels in the city concerning enough for something like this to be useful?
In general, most of the time and in most places Auckland has rather clean air.
The reason of that is mostly accidental because of our geography and the weather system that we experience.
If we didn’t have the winds we have, our concentrations would be significantly higher.
Having said that there are times in the year and locations in the city where the air is much less clean and that has impacts on our health.
As a comparison, let’s think of a scale where 1 is “Beijing-dirty” air and 10 is “Middle of the ocean- clean” air, on a typical summer day, in the middle of a park you can expect the air to be ranked as a 9 but on a cold and still winter morning in a busy intersection you can experience air closer to 3.
Now, the goal of this project in general and this app in particular is really to enable conversations about
air quality and the impacts that our activities – driving, burning wood – have on the environment and I
believe that those conversations are extremely useful for us and particularly relevant to our children who will be living with the consequences of our actions or inaction.
Do you have any plans to load any more data into the design or add new features?
We have lots of ideas and we’ve even started exploring the concept of an “Environmental Education Virtual Corner” using augmented reality to help students and teachers to approach complex topics such as biodiversity, climate change and atmospheric science.
However, at the moment we’re focused on the TEMP project that got under way on Thursday and the workshops that we’re running at Te Uru Art Gallery.
After April, when the installations have finished we’ll start thinking about where do we want to take this as has quite a lot of potential not only with New Zealand data and for New Zealand audiences but also internationally.
BY JAMIE MORTON