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Does Your City Literally Stink? There’s An App For That

A new app in Pittsburgh works like a citizen’s arrest for foul odors.

Sewage. Hot trash. Gas. Factory smog. They’re all scents that nobody wants to inhale, and yet, many city dwellers do, every day, without saying a word to anyone. The problem is, many of these smells signify a public health risk. Ideally, we’d be reporting them all, to someone, somehow.

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Smell PGH is a free iOS/Android app available to citizens of Pittsburgh, that allows people to easily alert the city’s health department when they smell something foul.

“Garbage or a skunk might be fleeting. But something like sulfur, or worse, is potentially dangerous to your health, to inhale for long periods of time,” says Beatrice Dias, project director for the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute’s CREATE Lab, which built the app. “And if you’re smelling it, you’re breathing it.”

The app uses a relatively simple approach to a big problem: crowdsourcing. As you walk, if you smell something bad, you load the app. You rate the stench on a scale of one to five, and then you’re offered the option to describe the odor, list any ill effects you experienced, and include contact information, should you choose. Submitting the information emails it directly to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Health Department, complete with your GPS coordinates. Once you’ve submitted, you’re treated to a visualization of the reported smells around you. It’s like a city map of stench. But it’s not meant to depress you. It’s actually meant to encourage you, and reinforce that reporting the problem was the right decision.

We like that it’s creating a community of users who aren’t feeling as isolated reporting something negative about pollution. If you phone the health department, it’s much more isolating to do that on your own. You might feel like, ‘maybe it’s just me,'” says Dias. “But there’s a lot more power in seeing the map and noticing so many of my neighbors experience this same thing, [reinforcing] ‘I need to be taken seriously!'”

Smell PGH is a pretty humble-looking app to be sure, but functionally speaking, it brings the same frictionless feel of modern-day social media, or shopping apps, to an otherwise opaque bureaucratic process. In the 10 months since it’s launched, over 1,800 people have installed the app, and in at least one instance Dias has heard about, the data helped the Allegheny County Health Department track down the source of a polluter.

Into the future, Dias would like to get more Pittsburghians to use the app, as well as generate the funding necessary to bring Smell PGH to more cities. But until then, she acknowledges the app’s early success. “The biggest impact is that people feel like they have a voice now,” says Dias. “And collectively, they’re making noise about smells in Pittsburgh.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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