Putting the cat amongst the pigeons


Putting the cat amongst the pigeons

Stuart Aitken

Last month a flock of air pollution monitoring pigeons were sent into London skies to gather data. Stuart Aitken, Head of Content at Digitas, explains the thinking behind the project – and argues that wearable technology may be the future of pollution data collection.

The great Nikola Tesla predicted many things. He foresaw a world filled with flying machines, wireless power, TVs and mobile phones. Less well known is his love of pigeons. The story goes that he used to walk in the park to feed the pigeons until he developed an unusually close relationship with a pigeon which visited him every day.

The relationship was so unusual he’s quoted as saying: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life”.

And so it seems that Tesla himself would have approved of the Pigeon Air Patrol, the world’s first ever flock of pollution-monitoring pigeons who report their findings via Twitter.

Getting access to accurate air pollution data has been a headache for many years. Andrew Collinge, Assistant Director, Intelligence and Analysis at the Greater London Authority, acknowledged this recently at an event Digitas hosted for the British Academy and Nesta which looked at how social data can inform policy decisions.

For our own part, our work with Plume Labs, a technology company that helps consumers track and reduce their exposure to air pollution, led us to explore a number of different options as we tried to come up with a workable, accurate solution which would allow Londoners to understand what’s happening in their city. At first we thought of putting Plume’s air pollution sensors on drones to cross the capital but quickly realised the very real security barriers to this approach. Bikes and mopeds were considered – but have you ever tried to cross the city at rush hour?

Finally we turned to pigeons for a solution. In past lives they’ve been used to carry vital information across long distances at high speeds – why not try this again?

Several months – and many odd conversations – later, we launched from our Brick Lane office a flock of pigeons wearing specially designed backpacks carrying pollution-monitoring devices. And to add another 21 Century twist, we partnered with Twitter to launch @PigeonAir, meaning that Londoners could tweet their location to the pigeons and get an accurate reading of the pollution levels in their area.

This project was a blend of the digital with the very analogue as we sought to raise awareness of a real, but at times intangible problem facing all Londoners. And the timing couldn’t have been better. In the weekend prior to launch, London faced its highest levels of air pollution since March 2015 – March is notoriously bad for air pollution.

And so, our heroic pigeons flew over London for a week. During this time their story was covered in over 2,000 global new stories by almost every news outlet you could name. The Twitter account generated over 39,000 conversations serving up a staggering 667 million impressions.

But air pollution is here to stay.

Looking to the longer term, for phase two of the project, Plume Labs successfullycrowdfunded a campaign (within six days) to recruit the London Air Patrol who will map out air pollution across the city, using a wearable version of the sensors carried by the Pigeon Air Patrol.


The data generated by the pigeon flights and, to a larger extent by the London Air Patrol, will be analysed and interpreted by researchers at Imperial College as part of a project called E-Plumewhich will improve our knowledge of the spatial distribution of pollution, allowing us to more accurately map pollution levels across the city – as well as understanding our personal exposure to pollution.

The project will also help us understand how such wearable sensors could help people change their future behaviour in relation to air pollution.

As Tesla once said, “Life is and will remain an equation incapable of solution, but it contains certain known factors”. If we can at least begin to understand the factors surrounding air pollution a little better then we can take more educated steps towards finding a solution.

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