Carnegie Mellon University
June 22, 2017

Smell Something, Say Something

Smell PGH App Helps Pittsburghers Report Foul Odors

By Byron Spice

Image map generated using data collected on foul odors in the Pittsburgh region

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab are rolling out new features in Smell PGH, a smartphone app that helps Pittsburgh area residents collectively report foul odors and alert each other to suspicious smells that waft through city neighborhoods and suburbs.

Smell PGH now includes time-lapse animations on its map based on times and locations of smell reports. This gives people a better idea of which way a plume of possible pollution is drifting. Also, a new companion website enables anyone to interact with the Smell PGH map visualization, regardless of whether they have a smartphone, and improve their understanding of Allegheny County's pollution landscape.

"If you smell something bad in the air, chances are that air isn't good to breathe," said Beatrice Dias, project director for the Robotics Institute's CREATE Lab. "Smell PGH provides a way for citizens to both report unhealthy air to authorities who can investigate it and alert other users so they can avoid it."

Since the CREATE Lab launched Smell PGH 10 months ago, the crowdsourcing app has been downloaded more than 1,300 times and has been used to report foul odors more than 4,300 times.

Users can note the nature and intensity of the smell, as well as any symptoms they might be experiencing. They also can choose to receive alerts about smell reports as well as notable changes in Pittsburgh's official air quality index. App developers have worked with the Allegheny County Health Department to ensure that all foul air complaints are forwarded to the county for investigation.

"Despite Pittsburgh's growing reputation for livability, the metropolitan area continues to lag behind many other communities, particularly for particle pollution," said Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and head of the CREATE Lab. "Smell PGH enables people to take action, letting others know when and where foul air is a problem and joining together to make their voices heard by health authorities."

"Smell PGH is at the frontier of how citizen scientists can inform policymakers and ensure that we are protecting our health from the dangers of air pollution," said Adam Garber, deputy director of PennEnvironment, a statewide environment advocacy group. Its sister organization, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, has been a champion of Smell PGH and partnered with the CREATE Lab to build awareness about the app.

Mark Dixon, a filmmaker and avid cyclist who lives in Squirrel Hill, said the app is something he has come to rely upon.

"The Smell PGH app is both simple and powerful," he said. "The app's reports are surprisingly well-correlated to air pollution monitors that I keep on my front porch, reassuring me that the devices are measuring meaningful information and that there is a community of air quality-minded citizens out there who share my concerns."

The CREATE Lab developed Smell PGH with support from the Heinz Endowments. The project is a collaboration with Allegheny County Clean Air Now, PennEnvironment, Group Against Smog and Pollution, the Sierra Club, Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces, Blue Lens LLC, PennFuture, Clean Water Action and the Clean Air Council

"We're grateful to everyone who has been using Smell PGH and helping to improve the awareness of air pollution problems in our area," Dias said. "With the latest enhancements, we hope the app is more useful than ever and encourage more people to give it a try."

iPhone and Android versions of Smell PGH app can be downloaded from iTunes and Google Play, respectively.