The Black Cloud: Using Games to Understand Air Quality

Human behavior and land use affect air quality, and those effects are very distinct at the local level. A new environmental game fusing public participation, air quality sensors and web technology shows how.

8 minute read

September 4, 2008, 5:00 AM PDT

By Nate Berg

Cities are polluted places, and everyone knows it. Beijing is just coming out of a month-long media barrage on the city's poor air quality. Los Angeles, the original City of Smog, has been hearing it for decades. And though the existence of pollution is well known, it's not so well understood.

In L.A, the city as a whole could be considered a polluted place, but the level of pollution actually varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes even street to street. These local differences don't often play into the common perception of environmental issues like pollution or global warming, according to Greg Niemeyer, an associate professor at the University of California Berkeley's Department of Art Practice. He's hoping to change that perception.

Photo: Greg Niemeyer
Game creator Greg Niemeyer.

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

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

Collecting the Data

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

But there's a catch. The exact location of the sensors is not revealed, so players are forced to examine and interpret the data to try to figure out what type of land use or human behavior would result in the numbers on the graph.

Niemeyer calls his game the Black Cloud after the ominous and mysterious clouds of black soot that descend on Cairo, Egypt, every October. No one is really sure what causes the clouds exactly, but some say they're a result of burned agricultural waste combining with the city's excessive pollution. Whatever they're cause, the clouds are hard to ignore. "They become these massive clouds that hang over the city for days," says Niemeyer. "And they are so black and sooty that they ruin your outfits."

These black clouds are a relatively new phenomenon in Cairo, only appearing for the past decade or so. Niemeyer sees them as a poignant physical example of the mental disconnect between humans and the human behavior that affects air quality.

The Black Cloud in L.A.

In an effort to draw this connection, Niemeyer and a team at UC Berkeley joined together with a Los Angeles high school English teacher to develop a learning game that would bring the two together. With help from a MacArthur Foundation Digital Media Learning Grant, Niemeyer's team installed twelve sensors in the neighborhood around Manual Arts High School in South Central L.A. and began playing the game with the 12th grade English class of teacher Andy Garcia.

Photo: Environmental sensor

Niemeyer holds one of the air quality sensors near an open bottle of alcohol. The red lights indicate high levels of volatile organic compounds (in this 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. One sensor was placed at a gas station, another near a freeway on-ramp, another in a laundromat, and another right in the classroom. Niemeyer and Garcia then began to teach the students about the influences on their air quality and how to read the data. The students followed the data for two months this summer.

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

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

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

"We found that the classroom was the most polluted place in South Central 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 avid environmentalists, and more than that, they're really interested in protecting their health and making changes to that effect in their neighborhood."

Students React

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

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

Another aspect of the game is an exercise where students consider what would make a better city. Students teamed up and created models of their ideal cities, made completely out of trash found on their streets. The models show dense developments, major public transportation projects, huge park space, and even such simple city features as plentiful garbage cans. Niemeyer and Garcia say they didn't specifically teach the students about urban planning concepts and what makes a city work. The students already knew what was bad about their neighborhoods and how it should be improved based on their own experiences living in a traditionally bad part of town.

Photo: Students' ideal city model
This model of an ideal city was built out of trash by students in Andy Garcia's 12th grade English class at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles. High-rise buildings, an above-ground subway system, a Las Vegas-like entertainment district, and a separate park area can be seen.

But what Niemeyer's Black Cloud game taught them is just how bad things are. The game put numbers to the students' local environment, showing them that, at 600 parts per million carbon dioxide, South Central 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 per million, which is ten times what it should be. And that starts messing with your attention span," says Niemeyer. "But in Egypt we expect around 5,000 parts per million. Easily."

The Black Cloud in Egypt

Niemeyer is planning to bring the Black Cloud game to Egypt in January, where sensors will be placed in art galleries throughout the city and visitors will be able to monitor the air quality data. But because the Egyptian government is especially concerned about the reputation of its notoriously poor air quality, the setup will be slightly different than what Niemeyer had done in L.A. this summer. In Cairo, the data will not be publicly available online, and the sensors will 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 with the fact that there is no black cloud in Egypt. There's only green nodes," says Niemeyer, joking over Egypt's official denial of the black cloud's existence. The government has also dictated where the sensors can be located, says Niemeyer, "so that they can control who's watching it -- and they can turn it off if they don't like it."

But despite the limitations, Niemeyer says the game should still be able to achieve its main goal -- to connect people with their local air quality issues.

The game seems to be a success so far. Niemeyer recently brought the game to another part of Los Angeles for local community members to get involved. Sensors were installed in places like an office building, a minimart, and a nail salon, and community members were invited to monitor their local levels. Armen Simonian, owner of I&A Cleaners in Los Angeles, is currently hosting one of the sensors in his dry cleaning 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 anything too concerning yet. He is curious about what's going on inside his shop though. Niemeyer convinced Simonian to try turning his ventilation on all night instead of just during the day to see how much the air quality 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, or ventilating overnight – can make big improvements to air quality, according to Niemeyer. But for many people, even making small changes is out of the question.

Photo: Sensor on wall at I&A Cleaners
A Black Cloud sensor on the wall in I&A Cleaners in Los Angeles is collecting data on the air quality in this dry cleaning business. The lights indicate low to moderate levels of temperature (in blue), carbon dioxide (in orange), and volatile organic compounds (in red).

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

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

Nate Berg is assistant editor of Planetizen.

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