AirTRACS: Community-based Air Quality Monitoring

Maria Michails, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Boston 2017: Pedagogy

Attempting to address air quality concerns in South End Albany, New York, initially in relation to the crude oil trains staged beside Ezra Prentice Homes, AirTRACS was initiated by RPI Electronic Arts and STS PhD student, Maria Michails, as a community-based environmental art and technology project. The project consisted of workshops to build a fleet of rovers made with low-cost air quality monitoring sensors and electronics mounted on toy trucks and wearables, made with youth living in the neighborhood. A companion website maps the rovers and features recorded storytelling by their elders. The stories are an ethnographic presentation of the personal experiences of those living, for years and in some cases decades, in close proximity to crude oil trains, heavy diesel truck traffic and industrial activity at the adjacent Port of Albany, recently dubbed an oil transfer hub. Using citizen science and critical making, chosen for their rising mainstream popularity, as methods for engagement, the project has an unconventional goal: as a form of radical pedagogy and tactical intervention, the making and deploying of the devices during publicized events and alongside the New York State DEC's expert monitoring, the aim is to keep pressure on the agency to fulfill their promise of the year-long comprehensive study of air quality in the neighborhood. Recognizing the limitations of low-cost sensors, the objective of our citizen science practice is not to attempt to match data accuracy of the agency's high-end monitors (although the web platform will present the data collected), but as a provocation for State accountability and deepened learning about the complex relationship between governance, corporate neighbors, and public health.

Published: 01/30/2023