Strap This Device to Your Bike and Measure the Air Quality of Your Ride
The sensing device. Photo courtesy of team.

One aspect people like about the Chicago Crash Browser is looking up crashes along the route they bike to see if there are areas that should be avoided. What if you could also avoid routes that have high pollution, are especially noisy, or lack good street lighting?

A group from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is working on it. They call their creation the “” It’s a sensing device that uses GPS to record your location while collecting data on temperature, humidity, air quality, noise, and lighting levels. The team includes Miguel Perez and Colin Hutton, working with professors Doug Pancoast and Robb Drinkwater. Eight other students have contributed. The quartet presented the “mote” at Tuesday’s OpenGov Hack Night.

The data collects is subject to exposure bias: your air quality will show as polluted if you are always riding behind trucks and buses. Yet an enormous network of motes traveling around the city, constantly measuring air quality on thousands of unique routes, would be able to generate a view of how the city is meeting its air quality goals (set forth in the Chicago Climate Action Plan and by the EPA). The mote’s sensors measure carbon monoxide, and add-ons can track nitrous trioxides (to measure ozone), volatile organic compounds, and hydrocarbons.

While the mote is not quite ready for distribution (the prototype needs to be made more durable), its inventors hope to make them available to SAIC students, to sell them, and to let people build their own by making the plans publicly available online.

To learn more, I talked to Hutton, who moved to Chicago in 2008 to attend SAIC, from Bowdoinham, Maine, and rides a bike in the city when the weather’s warm.

Steven Vance: Why build such a device, and what is it made of?

Colin Hutton: It’s an Arduino-based* circuitry connected to many sensors in a “stack.” We made this mostly because we all wanted to “figure out” the city in a way that was mobile and accessible, and we saw the bicycling movement as a way tap into a community that was already well-established. We want to collaborate with that community to have a full map of Chicago, with all the data it can generate, and to give that data back, possibly in the city’s data portal.
The current version of (left) next to a smaller prototype container. The velcro attaches the "mote" to a bicycle's top tube.

SV: What are the future plans? Will the instructions be open-sourced or will the device be sold?

CH: They will absolutely be open-sourced. We want to make sure that everyone can get one, even if they don’t get it through us. We plan on open-sourcing everything. We don’t want to have this be a capitalist interest. We’re not trying to make a product, but a service. The more people who have the Mote, the better. What fun would it be if only rich people were collecting data and mapping the city?

SV: How can this be used for routing and giving people trip suggestions?

CH: Routing is where I think this device has the most potential. Besides it being really awesome to see all this data collected, it can influence where you ride, and your way of life. You suddenly have this ability to hold up a mirror to the city: I rode through this before, but I don’t have to ride through it again because of all the carbon monoxide; maybe that’s why I have a headache every morning.

It’s an exciting thing to use the data and have a functional data set. It’s not meaningful to have this huge dataset that’s no one looking at or using. The routing makes it more interactive. That’s what got me excited; It was interactive.
Professors Pancoast (hat) and Drinkwater (left of Pancoast) talk about the

*Arduino is a microcontroller you can buy locally at RadioShack and MicroCenter for about $30. There are dozens of sensors that can be attached to whatever you build and it uses a simple programming language. A large community shares ideas, applications, and troubleshoots.

  • Anonymous

    This type of thing holds awesome promise. Hopefully the mapping end is open too, so that different cities can be mapped. I’d buy one to map my rides, definitely.

    This type of technology can be extended as far and wide as the imagination. For example, adding an ultrasonic echo locator or two, a biker can map how close motorists pass cyclists along a certain route (which has lots of variance – I for one ride the left hand stripe of the bike lane, other people might not; placement on the left hand grip vice center tube of the bike would have an impact too).

    Perhaps another enhancement would be a simple momentary push button a biker could mount to the handlebar. Whenever an aggressive motorist pulls a stunt, the user pushes the button. These hot spots could be plotted to look for concentrations of road-ragers.

    Indeed, what a great idea!

  • Scott Sanderson

    I would totally ride with this. Sometimes the air quality seems really poor, but I never know how bad. I have a face mask, but hardly ever wear it. Collecting data could be the first step in persuading our city to clean up its air. If this ever goes on sale, please post about it!

  • Interesting idea. I’m curious to see what data is gathered and what changes it might motivate.

  • Colin Hutton

    We’re using map box and a longitude and latitude reading to map the data, I’m particularly dedicated to not alienating other cities/towns from this project personally, I’m really hopeful that one day the site will be so robust that we have a global map, not just one of Chicago.

  • Nung

    hey, that’s my bike!

  • Thanks for riding it.

  • Data. Data. Data. For those who haven’t been reading Grid Chicago or Streetsblog Chicago very long, you’ll soon find out that we need more data. In some cases, we are collecting the data but not sharing it well (an example of this is my Chicago Crash Browser).

  • Are you talking about this MapBox?

    I love MapBox products. I use TileMill:

  • m.

    Where can I line up for one of these!?!

    One reason I lean towards divvying up Chicago’s almost 10,000 lane miles as opposed to creating modeshare on some higher volume streets is that riding in vehicle exhaust is pretty risky given the things we know & especially what we don’t know. I know it’s important to transition so that people come to accept big changes, but the ending paragraphs of this article ( have stuck with me: “Brauer says the preliminary results of his lab’s work suggest that bike lanes are best when built one block from a major traffic artery. Despite the emerging research, Bae said that she does not know of any cities that consider cyclists’ pollution exposure when designing bike lanes. Including Vancouver, where Brauer cycles, many of the cities that built bike lanes one block away from a major road thought about cost, not pollution. ‘Most were done by accident, because they were cheaper,’ Brauer said. ‘But they actually give you an air pollution benefit.'”

    I realize we’ve not even got the Berteau Greenway in yet, but there are a lot of residential streets that already function like greenways. I tend to think there’s value in looking at aggressive restrictions on historically residential streets that became arterials because of access to higher speed roads like the 90/94 and Lake Shore Drive. If you start looking at existing building stock & zoning, it seems like there’s a case to be made for restricting vehicular access and prioritizing pedestrians, bikes, & local-only traffic on California as a pairing with BRT with bike restrictions on Western, for example. BRT’s a huge opportunity, but my sense has been that “one street” focus in BRT presentations may be encouraging people to look at streets in isolation. Chicago has this fantastic web of closely positioned streets and alleys that could be used so creatively!

  • Speaking specifically about Western, there are alternatives that are even closer, like Oakley, Rockwell, and Leavitt. The problem with the streets between the half-mile streets is that they get broken and barriered a lot. Oakley has that happen less often than most; this can be looked at, systematically, for all “side streets”.

    The 1st Ward Transportation Advisory Group is proposing a neighborhood greenway on Wood Street through Wicker Park and River West/West Town.

    I’d like to see one on Noble from Milwaukee past Augusta to Grand Avenue. It’s so wide and has low traffic!

  • Fantastic idea (i like reading about my alma mater doing cool stuff). I want one!

  • I rarely travel the major thoroughfares. There’s no shade in the summer and they’re dusty and dirty. The city is a near perfect grid and that provides numerous alternative routes as there is almost always a parallel side street. These streets have slow-moving traffic; they’re shaded and generally cleaner. They’re probably less polluted (and when I get my cool device, we’ll know for sure). I would like to see bike lanes on all side streets – no parking on major thoroughfares and BRT all over the city.

  • Erik Swedlund

    I would love to see a greenway on Noble, given that I work at the corner of Chicago and Noble. Of course, as you are aware, Noble between Augusta and Erie is under IDOT jurisdiction (thanks for making the geocommons map that shows that!). The Noble/Erie segment of jurisdiction seems odd–does it have something to do with access to the Kennedy?

  • m.

    Streets like Noble that already function as back routes should definitely be protected and enhanced as greenways.

    Your point is spot on re. the problems presented by the broken/barriered issue. If you are riding from Uptown to East Garfield Park, for ex., you won’t really get far using Oakley, Rockwell, or Leavitt. That’s why I’d like to see more clear, long, continuous routes with minimal car traffic that don’t require cyclists to carry a map in head or hand. I’d like to be able to know that if I go to California anywhere between Chicago Ave and Montrose, for ex., that I’m on route that’s mostly for bikes & pedestrians, with minimal traffic. I wouldn’t mind then doing the extra few blocks to get there if there were those benefits.


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