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Pigeons With Backpacks Are Live-Tweeting London's Air Pollution Levels

Old school meets modern tech in a new environmental PSA project.

  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
  • <p>Pigeon Air Patrol by Plume Labs.</p>
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If you happen to be in London this week and notice a pigeon going about its business sporting a tiny backpack, you are not witnessing a new avian fashion trend. That pigeon is performing a valuable public service.

The backpack is equipped with lightweight pollution-monitoring sensors, and that pigeon is part of a flock of 10 currently sweeping the British capital, measuring levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone, the gases principally behind harmful urban air pollution.

The three-day project, Pigeon Air Patrol, is by Plume Labs, a technology company that helps people monitor and track their exposure to air pollution. Data collected by the pigeons is reported through Twitter, and Londoners who tweet their location to @PigeonAir will receive an instant response from one of the flock on the level of pollution in their area. The project's website also allows people to click on a live map for a reading, and users can download the Plume Air app for more information and advice on how to avoid pollution.

Created by DigitasLBi, with support from Twitter, Pigeon Air Patrol aims to raise awareness of air pollution. Creative director Pierre Duquesnoy says he had been interested in air pollution for some time and noticed that most Londoners were unaware of how serious the problem is. "We realized that the two main reasons why people ignore the problem are that air pollution is invisible and that it is scientifically complicated," he says.

"So from there I looked into an idea, which would make the invisible visible and raise awareness of it. Nothing or no one can zip [more] quickly around London to monitor air quality than a pigeon (drones can’t fly across the city), especially during rush hour when pollution is at its most deadly. And pigeons have always been great at delivering important messages to humans," Duquesnoy says.

The pigeons are actually racing birds supplied by Brian Woodhouse, a well-known U.K. pigeon fancier. The flock members will return to normal life once their mission is complete.

It is hoped that the campaign will demonstrate to Londoners, in a tangible and immediate way, the impact of air pollution. It’s further hoped that people will be encouraged to sign up as beta testers for a human version of the equipment with the overall aim to build a "collaborative, human-powered air-quality monitoring network across London," according to Plume CEO, Romain Lacombe.

"Having 100 beta testers will make the information viable across London. There are, for instance, only 12 monitoring stations in the congestion charge zone," Lacombe says. The information will also help Plume Labs support a scientific study of air pollution crowdsourcing with Imperial College London.

The Plume Air app covers 200 cities worldwide, including New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Beijing, and Paris. DigitasLBi is looking into starting up other Pigeon Patrols internationally.

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