Pigeon Air Patrol

There is buzz this week about the London Pigeon Air Patrol, which is “fighting air pollution” with the aid of doughy cockney pigeons.

The technology is nicely done, small, light backpacks on the pigeons sample the air and report on air quality via the Internet. These are available to the public via Twitter.

Actually, the same sensors are offered to human pedestrians and cyclists (and, for that matter, you to put one on your motor vehicle) to “crowdsource pollution in London” [sic].

Trendy, this is.

But I have some problems with some of the claims.

First of all, this does nothing at all to “fight” air pollution. It may well help people notice the air quality in an appealing way. I mean, it’s so much cooler to get a tweet from your favorite pigeon than to look up the data from a human source. Maybe it’s more personal to see the air quality in your neighborhood, rather than a regional average—though I doubt that the point measurements will be that different.

But what action will you take on the basis of this information?  (See my earlier remarks about DIY air monitoring.) I can’t think of anything, other than the things you already know how to do: drive less, push to regulate emissions, and so on. (Or move out of the city.)

I also have to be skeptical about the data itself. The Twitter reports do not give the actual measurements, they report “moderate”, “extreme”, etc. It’s not obvious what this exactly means. The instrument is collecting data periodically as the pigeon flies and walks around. What volume of air is sampled for each report? How is the “location” of the randomly moving pigeon defined?  (Note that the air and the pigeon’s flight is three dimensional:  what is the relationship between air quality 10 or 20 meters off the ground, and at ground level?) How accurate are these readings, anyway?

In short, there is no way to really use this data or to check it.

(As a logical test:  Would you be able tell if the readings from Twitter were replaced with random values? Or perhaps with an average reading based on existing ground stations?  Really, there is no way to validate the readings, is there?)

This “data” is nearly useless because we really have no idea what is being measured or how to interpret it. And, in any case, we already know about air pollution, and have plenty of measurements. The pigeons are adding nothing useful, except maybe public relations.

Finally, as I always do, let me consider the welfare of the non-human participants, who have limited ability to consent or refuse to participate. Is this exploitation ethical?

In this case, I’m not worried about the avian partners. Pigeons are so codependent on H. sapiens that this is scarcely an imposition. They aren’t exactly living in a wilderness, free of humans. And they are basically left to live as they like, flying around their home city.  So no particular harm to the pigeon, even if the overall project is pointless.

Overall,  this is a pointless exercise is pseudo scientific “data collection”.  It is redundant, and does not one thing to “fight” pollution.

6 thoughts on “Pigeon Air Patrol”

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