Blog Post

Participatory Environmentalism

The Black Cloud: Using Games to Understand Air Quality

4 September 2008 - 5:00am
Photo: Greg Niemeyer
Game creator Greg Niemeyer.

"We have a lot of statistics about pollution and global warming, butit's very hard to translate the idea that the temperature globally isrising by 0.1 degree Celsius over the year," says Niemeyer. To help inthat translation, he's developed an interactive game that aims tobridge the gap between peoples' perception of pollution problems andthe local human behaviors that cause them.

"We scale it down from land use and global politics and globaleconomy to individual behavior in a given space," Niemeyer says. "And Ithink that makes it both accessible and actionable, so you can see thatthere's direct results from your behavioral change."

Collecting the Data

In Niemeyer's game, small electronic sensors are placed in differentlocations within a neighborhood, turned on, and begin to collect dataon air quality. The dozen or so sensors then transmit data on levels ofcarbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, temperature, light andsound to a website where players of the game can see a graph of the airquality conditions at specific places over time.

But there's a catch. The exact location of the sensors is notrevealed, so players are forced to examine and interpret the data totry to figure out what type of land use or human behavior would resultin the numbers on the graph.

Niemeyer calls his game the Black Cloud after the ominous andmysterious clouds of black soot that descend on Cairo, Egypt, everyOctober. No one is really sure what causes the clouds exactly, but somesay they're a result of burned agricultural waste combining with thecity's excessive pollution. Whatever they're cause, the clouds are hardto ignore. "They become these massive clouds that hang over the cityfor days," says Niemeyer. "And they are so black and sooty that theyruin your outfits."

These black clouds are a relatively new phenomenon in Cairo, onlyappearing for the past decade or so. Niemeyer sees them as a poignantphysical example of the mental disconnect between humans and the humanbehavior that affects air quality.

The Black Cloud in L.A.

In an effort to draw this connection, Niemeyer and a team at UCBerkeley joined together with a Los Angeles high school English teacherto develop a learning game that would bring the two together. With helpfrom a MacArthur Foundation Digital Media Learning Grant, Niemeyer'steam installed twelve sensors in the neighborhood around Manual ArtsHigh School in South Central L.A. and began playing the game with the12th grade English class of teacher Andy Garcia.

Photo: Environmental sensor
Niemeyerholds one of the air quality sensors near an open bottle of alcohol.The red lights indicate high levels of volatile organic compounds (inthis case, a 70-proof liqueur).

They chose common places within the neighborhood for the sensors,places where pollution levels were likely to have big differences. Onesensor was placed at a gas station, another near a freeway on-ramp,another in a laundromat, and another right in the classroom. Niemeyerand Garcia then began to teach the students about the influences ontheir air quality and how to read the data. The students followed thedata for two months this summer.

But instead of strict lessons about what pollution is and why airquality is important, Niemeyer and Garcia's approach was moreexperiential. They wanted students to consider the data on their ownterms, in relation to their own lives.

"One of the bigger tasks was not to explain it, to say 'OK, todaywe're going to learn about the Black Cloud,' but to make it animmersive, intriguing environment so that there's a sense ofself-discovery of what was happening," says Garcia.

He says students were skeptical of the project at first, buteventually became very involved. And as they analyzed the data, theharsh realities of poor air quality began to change the way theythought about their neighborhood.

"We found that the classroom was the most polluted place in SouthCentral L.A. that we measured. And they weren't too happy about that,"says Niemeyer. "At the end of two months, they are now pretty avidenvironmentalists, and more than that, they're really interested inprotecting their health and making changes to that effect in theirneighborhood."

Students React

By noticing that CO2 levels go down when their classroom had betterventilation, students decided to keep windows and doors open during theday. But these lessons were not just isolated to the classroom.

"They're looking at ways that individual students can make change intheir community," says Garcia. "They're saying, 'I don't like thepollution at the gas station. I think that the area next to the libraryis pretty ugly. We could change that.' And I think that ultimately theycame out feeling a little more empowered than they would normally."

Another aspect of the game is an exercise where students considerwhat would make a better city. Students teamed up and created models oftheir ideal cities, made completely out of trash found on theirstreets. The models show dense developments, major publictransportation projects, huge park space, and even such simple cityfeatures as plentiful garbage cans. Niemeyer and Garcia say they didn'tspecifically teach the students about urban planning concepts and whatmakes a city work. The students already knew what was bad about theirneighborhoods and how it should be improved based on their ownexperiences living in a traditionally bad part of town.

Photo: Students' ideal city model
Thismodel of an ideal city was built out of trash by students in AndyGarcia's 12th grade English class at Manual Arts High School in SouthCentral Los Angeles. High-rise buildings, an above-ground subwaysystem, a Las Vegas-like entertainment district, and a separate parkarea can be seen.

But what Niemeyer's Black Cloud game taught them is just how badthings are. The game put numbers to the students' local environment,showing them that, at 600 parts per million carbon dioxide, SouthCentral L.A. is almost twice as polluted as the average place.

"But then if you go indoors in the classroom, it's 3,000 parts permillion, which is ten times what it should be. And that starts messingwith your attention span," says Niemeyer. "But in Egypt we expectaround 5,000 parts per million. Easily."

The Black Cloud in Egypt

Niemeyer is planning to bring the Black Cloud game to Egypt inJanuary, where sensors will be placed in art galleries throughout thecity and visitors will be able to monitor the air quality data. Butbecause the Egyptian government is especially concerned about thereputation of its notoriously poor air quality, the setup will beslightly different than what Niemeyer had done in L.A. this summer. InCairo, the data will not be publicly available online, and the sensorswill not be hidden.

"We had to adapt a little bit. For example, we're not calling it'Black Cloud'. We're calling it 'Green Node'. And that has to do withthe fact that there is no black cloud in Egypt. There's only greennodes," says Niemeyer, joking over Egypt's official denial of the blackcloud's existence. The government has also dictated where the sensorscan be located, says Niemeyer, "so that they can control who's watchingit -- and they can turn it off if they don't like it."

But despite the limitations, Niemeyer says the game should still beable to achieve its main goal -- to connect people with their local airquality issues.

The game seems to be a success so far. Niemeyer recently brought thegame to another part of Los Angeles for local community members to getinvolved. Sensors were installed in places like an office building, aminimart, and a nail salon, and community members were invited tomonitor their local levels. Armen Simonian, owner of I&A Cleanersin Los Angeles, is currently hosting one of the sensors in his drycleaning business.

Image: Air quality data on the Black Cloud website
The Black Cloud website displays air quality data from I&A Cleaners over time.

Simonian says he's been watching the data, but hasn't seen anythingtoo concerning yet. He is curious about what's going on inside his shopthough. Niemeyer convinced Simonian to try turning his ventilation onall night instead of just during the day to see how much the airquality improves when he opens up shop in the morning.

"I did it for myself, for my family," he says. "You never know.People always say dry cleaning is poisonous. It's better to be safe."

Small changes in behavior ? opening the windows in the classroom, orventilating overnight ? can make big improvements to air quality,according to Niemeyer. But for many people, even making small changesis out of the question.

Photo: Sensor on wall at I&A Cleaners
ABlack Cloud sensor on the wall in I&A Cleaners in Los Angeles iscollecting data on the air quality in this dry cleaning business. Thelights indicate low to moderate levels of temperature (in blue), carbondioxide (in orange), and volatile organic compounds (in red).

"Many people work at places where they're clearly not in control oftheir environment," Niemeyer says. The same can be said for residentsin neighborhoods like those around Manual Arts High School. But, hesays, the more people understand about the local aspects of their airquality, the better equipped they are to do something about it.

Before heading to Egypt in January, Neimeyer will place sensors inkey spots around the San Francisco Bay Area. One has already beenplaced on the stage of the Zellerbach Music Hall at UC Berkeley.Residents will be invited to play along, monitor the data on the BlackCloud website, and try to connect the data of their local air qualityto the human behaviors and uses of space that cause them.


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