Modern Technology Can Be A Great Help

Pittsburgh group finds transitioning to modern technology has gained more awareness in the fight for clean air.

By: Megan Bixler

When Sue Seppi first joined the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) to help improve the region’s air in 1972, she could not have imagined that she would be organizing classes to educate individuals how to read smoke emissions from the plants around the city.

The same happened for Jessica Tedrow, as she took to educating the youth in Southwestern Pennsylvania about pollution as well as assisting GASP members to equip bicyclists with air monitoring equipment.

Courtesy of the Western PA Air Pollution Control Association.

Shortly after Jamin Bogi joined the crew, he was amazed to find himself managing the team’s transition to modern day technology and communication to stay connected with the community and keep the public educated on air quality and pollution rates.

While GASP has been the lead voice of environmental advocacy for 48 years, it is now moving into a new era of high-tech air monitoring and communication through social media to keep concerned civilians on improving air quality.

“Gasp tries to reach out to as many people as possible to teach them about our mission to improve air quality,” said Tedrow of the new move to modern technology.

Beginning in 1969, a group of young individuals gathered together in a friend’s living room. They were concerned about downtown Pittsburgh’s state of air quality and the pollution that filled the skies and swamped the streets. Long-time member Mike Dawida recalls, “You can’t comprehend this now, but all of Pittsburgh was surrounded by steel mills.”

These individuals reached out to the community using fliers, went to public meetings to address their concerns and eventually gained a strong following.

“We got people to the decision-making table; there were a lot of important decisions being made by industry without any community input,” GASP’s current executive director, Rachel Filippini said.

From 1969 to present-day Pittsburgh, GASP was successful with enforcing surrounding plants to abide by their emissions restrictions and even fought against possible new plants being built. Even in 1999, members like Kate St. John were still fighting against a newer coke plant.

“Becoming active in the fight against the coke plant changed my life; I became an environmental advocate,” St. John said.

Their success and determination have inspired many, and they still seek to keep informing the public of current air quality and what they can still improve on.

And lately, it has taken on a decidedly high-tech effort to achieve those goals.

One of those programs is their Smoke Reading Program, which is taken care of by longtime member, Sue Seppi. Seppi joined around 1972, just a few years after GASP had gained its reputation. She has held several different positions throughout the years when staff was minimal. Now that the organization has grown, she has settled into her current position as Project Manager and assists with the program when needed.

“Our goal was recruiting citizens to volunteer to go out to smoke read,” Seppi mentioned.

The Smoke Reading Program allows for volunteers to take a one day class of education on smoke’s opacity, density and even the amount of visible background behind the smoke. After completion of the class, the volunteers then go out into the field where they are tested on their knowledge by inspectors using a smoke machine that will emit the different types of smoke.

The volunteers receive the exact same training that the Allegheny County Air Quality Inspectors receive. There are several requirements that must be met when reading smoke to be as accurate as possible. For example, you must be a certain distance away from the plant that you are observing and the sun must be behind you at all costs. Sunlight behind the smoke can sometimes magnify or alter the appearance of the smoke, making it look different than it might be.

Seppi states, “Though it is difficult for individuals to be inspecting every day, there are inspectors out there doing the same job.”

A recent program to also help monitor smoke emissions involves cameras in the communities where these plants are located. They can keep track of the plants, but they cannot read the type of smoke the same way people can. These individuals do not use any special equipment or devices, but their own eyes, knowledge and a chart to document their findings.

GASP provides educational opportunities to the communities of Pittsburgh in more ways than one. A recent program that allows for bicyclists to monitor the air they travel through on their daily commutes has been a growing program for both the bicyclists and the monitors themselves.

Courtesy of the Western PA Air Pollution Control Association.

The Bicycle Air Monitoring Program began about four years ago and has been recruiting volunteer cyclists to take part in this program,” Jamin Bogi says of GASP’s newer program. It has recruited about 50 volunteers since its debut.

With this newer program on the rise, GASP is seeking to reach out to more and more people as possible to improve air quality.

The air monitors are specially-made devices to fit on the front of your bike. These monitors are particle monitors that gather data from the air that the cyclist is traveling through, whether that be a daily commute or leisure bike ride. “The monitors can gather up to eight hours’ worth of data,” Tedrow explains. This allows for daily riders to gather a lot of data, depending on mileage, for at least a few days.

While GASP has been successfully hosting this program to the public, there is still room for some improvements.

The current device being used is a Dylos brand monitor that is attached to an arrangement of PVC piping designed to fit on your bike. Once attached properly, all that is needed is to ride around with the monitor wherever it is you need to go.  Also, attached to the piping is a GPS monitor so your location can be tracked accurately. Once the monitor is turned on- they are pre-calibrated for GASP’s use- and the biker begins their commute, the monitor simply does the rest of the work. Air will enter through a vent on the top-back of the device, and exit thru a bottom vent. The device picks up particles in the air, and the data is then uploaded to their website. “We want to provide people with another tool to better educate themselves on reducing their exposure to air pollution,” Tedrow says.

Though GASP is in a current state of transition in receiving an upcoming grant for these devices, the program itself is a major step of their transition to modern technology.

When Jamin Bogi joined the group about six years ago, he came to find that the organization’s website needed a more modern, friendlier approach. Bogi stepped to the plate, sketched the new design for the page, and hired a web designer to successfully complete the project. The website we come to know today is vibrant and colorful and appealing to the eye, but equally informative and catches one’s attention about current air quality issues and ways to get involved with them.

There are several other ways to get involved, rather than just the programs that are available.

Along with the new web page, GASP could gather subscribers to receive a newsletter that is sent out via email twice a year. The newsletter features events, recent and current air quality rates and other important information about the environment. Since this debut, GASP has since acquired about 2,000 subscribers to this newsletter.

Though this was a huge step to reaching out to a bigger audience, they have gone even further to reach out to an even larger audience- vast, diverse, and concerned about the environment.

Realizing the newsletter was not quite enough, GASP took to the world of social media to reach out their followers and beyond. Today, the group has created Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram to share photos on. Though its largest following now comes from Twitter, they equally use Facebook in which they share upcoming events they might be hosting, such as the Smoke Reading Program or other educational programs.

“We created Twitter about six years ago and now have over 3,000 followers,” Bogi mentions.

This account is used to help keep up with current news, whether that be a report or complaint of foul smells in an area or the daily air quality rates and even sharing of events posted on Facebook. Twitter also helps the followers reach out to GASP in a timely manner, in case of a more serious situation. All their reports are then forwarded to the Allegheny County Health Department, who takes care of the bigger business of investigating the situation. The ACHD website also provides rules and regulations on a number of things, including air pollution, recycling and other things attaining to the benefit of a healthy environment.

With social media growing larger and larger every day, the accessibility one has from their phones at their fingertips gave the organization another idea.

Phone apps are a large part of technology as they give the user easy access to just about anything at the touch of a button- or the screen for that matter. GASP recently discovered yet another quick way to reach out to the health department when needed. This discovery came from a Carnegie Mellon University student group called the CREATE Lab. This group created an app called “SmellPGH”. The purpose of this app allows the user to promptly report any foul smells or smoke sightings wherever they are, using the location recorded on their phone. The person can evaluate the type of smell, rate the intensity of it and add any other additional information needed. The report is sent directly to Allegheny County Health Department as soon as they submit their report.  This is another great high tech effort to help improve our air quality and environment, and has already gained a lot of followers. “We’ve had a little over 4,000 smell reports submitted to us through the app, and there have been approximately 1,200 app installations (iOS and Android combined),” states Mike Tasota, Systems Software Engineer at CMU CREATE Lab.

Courtesy of the Western PA Air Pollution Control Association.

SmellPGH was launched in September 2016 and works with partner organizations -including GASP- such as Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and Penn Future to name a few. “I would say our biggest accomplishment is providing the community with a tool that visualizes their shared experiences with pollution odors and the impacts of poor air quality in general,” says Beatrice Diaz, Project Director of CREATE Lab.

GASP continues to move forward with their projects and offer a wide range of programs for all ages.

Recently, a program educating elementary and secondary schools about air quality has begun. The program is the EPA School Flag Program, managed by Tedrow, began around 2012 and is now featured in over 25 schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania. A range of brightly-colored flags are available and students choose the color based on the daily air quality.

“Our goal is to get kids of all ages to be thinking about air pollution,” Tedrow states.

With a newly designed website, several accounts on social media sites, and a large outreach, GASP has been able to create more projects and provide more information to the public about air pollution in the area.

Some other programs offered are Athletes United for Health Air, the Diesel Campaign and information on nearby coke plants to help the public understand what these plants’ permits are and how they can respond should these plants disobey those permits.

GASP plans to continue these programs, improve them if need be, and create new programs in the future. Seppi hopes to educate more and more people who are willing to learn about smoke reading and keep these coke plants in line. Tedrow hopes to reach out to schools beyond Southwestern PA with the flag program.

Bogi continues to work with the technological side, maintaining the website and hopes to gain even more followers on social media in the future.

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