Using homing pigeons with GPS-enabled backpacks to gather and communicate air pollution data

The artistic research project PigeonBlog investigated the use of pigeons in the collection and communication of air pollution data. Over two years, Beatriz da Costa and her team developed a miniature backpack for pigeons equipped with a pollution sensor, GPS, a GSM unit for cell tower communication, and a sim card to relay geo-located air-pollution data via text message. In this way trained homing pigeons could feed real-time pollution levels to a web application, acting as "civilian journalists" or "bloggers" reporting on the potential health risk of air pollution in California. After several months of trials, the pigeons flew three times in front of a larger audience in August 2006, in the context of an academic seminar on experimental critical theory, and twice at the electronic arts festival ISEA in San Jose.

Beatriz da Costa was an artist and educator working in the USA at the intersection of science, engineering, and politics.

While not aimed at performing a representative study, in response to the project scientists acknowledged that the birds were a viable way to gather data that would otherwise be difficult to access because (before the widespread use of drones) most airborne collection instruments were sources of pollution themselves. The pigeons could validate the interpellation models used to estimate pollution levels between static monitoring stations.

The focus of the project lay in broadening the notion of citizen science, bridging inaccessible research agendas and activist-oriented citizen concerns by using pigeons literally and metaphorically to communicate about environmental data. The interspecies collaboration was met with mixed reactions as it did get people talking about air pollution, a relevant interest also from the birds' perspective, but the apparent ethical implications of exploiting non-humans for data collection proved to be a main concern.

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