Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab is tackling noxious odors and air pollution in Allegheny County, Pa.

According to the CREATE Lab, people living in southwest Pennsylvania have a significantly higher risk of developing cancer due to this exposure. The air in that region was ranked eighth worst in the United States in 2016 by the American Lung Association.

The Lab turned to crowdsourcing to solve the problem with a new app dubbed Smell PGH. The app allows users to report foul odors directly to the Allegheny County Health Department so it can better monitor and act on these incidents of bad-smelling air. The app also includes visualization of smell reports across Pittsburgh.

(Image: CREATE Lab)

App users can easily report a smell. The app automatically pulls a user’s location via GPS technology, and then the user just has to rank the smell on a scale of one to five, with five being the worst. Anything rated a two or higher automatically sends a message to the Allegheny County Health Department. The app also asks users to describe the smell, with suggested words such as industrial and rotten eggs. Given the pollution concerns in that area, the app also asks for any health symptoms caused by the smell, such as headache or sore throat. Users also have the ability to write a personal note to the health department.

The app not only functions as a tool to allow citizens to communicate with health officials, but also enable health officials to communicate important air quality information to app users. CREATE Lab hopes Smell PGH will streamline the reporting process and provide researchers with better data to understand how pollution moves around the region.

The app was funded by Heinz Foundation in 2016 with a $49,000 grant to Carnegie Mellon along with an additional $70,000 grant to the university to support air quality monitoring. The CREATE Lab then worked with community members to determine what functionalities the app needed to have. Overall, the most frequent request was that air pollution complaints be heard.

In addition to a failing rating from the American Lung Association, the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), based in Pittsburgh, explains that the high pollution levels in the region are due to a combination of coal-fired power plants, vehicle traffic, and wood and barrel fires. The area is also home to the largest plant that manufactures heated charcoal in the U.S. The plant is located just 20 miles south of Pittsburgh.

The app is available for both iOS and Android.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs