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Bicycle couriers are monitoring air pollution in Cambridge, UK, beaming data back via cellphone, reports New Scientist. Small wireless pollution sensors and GPS allows phones to report levels of air pollutants wherever they happen to be. You can see the results on an interactive map.

“Mobiles are everywhere, and now have a lot of computing power,” says Eiman Kanjo, the computer scientist at Cambridge University, UK, leading technical development. The project, called Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across Grid Environments (MESSAGE Project), can provide an alternative to expensive custom hardware and report from places that otherwise aren’t monitored.

Air-pollution sensors and GPS units connect to cellphones via Bluetooth. Custom software lets the phone constantly report the current air quality and location to servers back in the lab. Data collection software called MobGeoSen was created to enable camera phones (such as Nokia series 60) to connect to multiple Bluetooth devices including GPS and wireless sensors.

The sensors are carried inside storage bins on the couriers’ bikes and record levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and nitrogen dioxide. “It is about the size of a TV remote control,” says Kanjo.

The cellphone approach can be used to collect other data never seen before, adds Kanjo. For example, gathering data from a large number of people over time could shed new light on the links between air pollution and asthma symptoms, perhaps allowing better preventive treatments.

The Cambridge research is part of a UK project, called MESSAGE, developing new ways to collect air pollution data using sensors on vehicles and people.

In the MESSAGE project, Cambridge is investigating the potential for mobile phones to support a sensing system, Newcastle will develop a “smart-dust” network using Zigbee (IEEE 802.15.4) motes, and Imperial College will devise a network that utilizes WiFi and WiMax technologies and a set of novel sensor designs. All platforms will integrate with a common data processing system.

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