This Week in Civic Tech: Pollution-Tracking Smartphones, Mapping Presidential Election Conversations, LA Buys 52,100 Frozen Rats

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / October 29, 2015
Traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. Diesel engines are one of the main contributors of harmful nitrogen dioxide gas, which can impact the health of people in urban areas. Flickr/Tony Webster

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Pollution Sensors in Smartphones?

What if the next Apple or Android phone featured a personal pollution sensor? That’s what Australian scientist Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, a professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), envisions. In an RMIT news release, Kalantar-Zadeh said that a joint discovery and research with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues at RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors has developed the “first low-cost and reliable” method to detect nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.

The World Health Organization estimates the gas plays a role in more than 7 million deaths worldwide, and Kalantar-Zadeh wants to reduce the statistics with a novel material called tin disulphide. The substance is a pigment, typically found in gilding varnishes, that captures NO2 molecules on its surface. With a few modifications, Kalantar-Zadeh said the material could easily be turned into a tiny sensor to measure NO2. For inclusion in mobile phones, it easily meets the most difficult criteria: It's small, with a surface thickness of just a few atoms. It's also cheap to produce, at less than 75 cents, and it’s likely to outperform industry competitors in accuracy — since no other gases are attracted to its surface.

“Not only would it improve the quality of millions of people’s lives, but it would also help avoid illness caused by nitrogen dioxide poisoning and potentially even death,” Kalantar-Zadeh said.

While a personal pollution detector might be a big sell to consumers, data advocates are probably more excited for what could happen if the tech was placed in smartphones and users shared that pollution data. This essentially would create a sensor network for pollution levels across cities. Insights might uncover environmental impacts from heavy NO2 producers like coal-fired power stations, diesel engines and congested roadways with high vehicle traffic.

Social Media App Tracks Presidential Election

Presidential elections are often sloppy: Candidates reverse opinions, political parties spin propaganda and special interests lobby with campaign finance. The process is sordid, to say the least, but a partnership between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines seeks to clarify the narrative.

In an announcement this week, Knight confirmed a new $648,000 grant to develop a 2016 presidential election map to track public political conversations from Twitter, Reddit and Facebook in real time. The goal of the initiative is ambitious. The platform, which operates under the name Electome, aims to study the social media behavior between journalists, candidates and citizens. It will analyze the growth of conversations as they spread, how conversations change course in tone and subject matter, and the outcomes the conversations produce.

The project has secured support from the Washington Post and Mashable, both of which will partner with MIT’s researchers to uncover trends, isolate notable conversations, and follow up with new coverage. The Knight investment is the second largest funding contribution to the lab, with Twitter holding the top spot.

LA Controller Data Cards Draw Attention

What do 52,100 frozen rats, 6,670 soccer balls, five rideable lawnmowers and a 15-seat military grade helicopter have in common? Absolutely nothing on the surface, but in this case, they are all recent purchases made by the city of Los Angeles. Controller Ron Galperin created a set of digital cards to illustrate what funds are going where.

The rats, for example, go to the Los Angeles Zoo and its rodent-eating residents. The soccer balls are for Department of Recreation and Parks. The lawnmowers service the playing fields and parks, and that helicopter (which totals $12.3 million) is for the Los Angeles Fire Department’s rescue work.

The point of the cards is to draw attention to the open data portal, Control Panel LA, and the wealth of financial data launched last March. The cards, which can be opened with a click, detail what the item is, why the city purchased it, and even a bit of trivia — like the fact that LA’s lawn mowers, the “Toro Groundmaster 5900,” have 99-horsepower turbo-charged engines, four-wheel drive, and mow a 16-foot radius.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.