Pigeons take to the London skies to tweet pollution data

Pigeons near the Tower of London
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Abel Cheung via Flickr --Ordinary London Pigeons

The feathered friends who make up Pigeon Patrol are cruising the skies wearing pollution-monitoring backpacks.

Last month I went batty for the team of super vultures deployed in Peru to battle illegal trash dumping, this month I’m cooing for London’s pollution pigeons. The team of 10 working heroes is outfitted with light-as-a-feather backpacks that collect air pollution data and tweet back live info in an effort to track air quality.

Putting pigeons to work was the brainstorm of Pierre Duquesnoy, creative director at the global marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi. He entered the curious concept into the #PoweredByTweets competition which was launched last year in conjunction with the London Design Festival.

Currently there are 120 stations monitoring air pollution in London but they are in fixed locations. “That means there are blind spots,” Duquesnoy tells the Evening Standard. “The stations are really accurate but only for the immediate vicinity, so scientists don’t have a clear idea of what is happening elsewhere. What I wondered was how we can cover some of these blind spots to try to get as much data as possible.”

Pigeon Patrol was one of six winning entries that was built and exhibited – and now, the patrol is actually patrolling.

Over the next three days the flock will fly about doing their pigeon things, but will do so wearing teeny-tiny fabric vests which fit comfortably on their chests and measure levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone, the main gases behind harmful urban air pollution, Twitter explains:

The pigeons will fly over London in packs of ten, headed back towards their home in Wanstead, reaching speeds of up to 50 miles an hour.

(I had no idea our winged heroes could fly so swiftly.)

For the project Duquesnoy worked with Plume Labs, a tech firm that helps citizens track their exposure to air pollution.

“It’s one thing to create the best technology in the world but you need people to understand it,” says Romain Lacombe, the founder and chief executive of Plume Labs. “What’s been missing is an understandable way to access our personal exposure [to air pollution] and advice on what to do about what you’re breathing, Most people don’t know how much pollution changes day by day, but also hour by hour and even street by street.”

“We are blind to something that is all around us, something that surrounds us every hour of the day but against which to have any protection and reduce our exposure, we have to make the air visible.”

So send in the doves! And for the record, the trained pigeons are well cared for – no birds were harmed in the making of this project.

“These are professional pigeons,” Duquesnoy says. “They’re very quick racing pigeons, they can fly at 60-80 mph. They live up to 20 years, compared with a street pigeon’s life expectancy of about four years. They’re beautiful birds and far smarter than people think. So we’re turning something that people don’t like into something positive. And people have always used pigeons to communicate, but this is in a very modern way – with Twitter.”

After the pigeons are done with their three-day publicity stint, Plume will continue the campaign with 100 people across London to beta test its new wearable pollution monitor. Until then, it’s all for the birds. Follow them at @PigeonAir.

Pigeons take to the London skies to tweet pollution data
The feathered friends who make up Pigeon Patrol are cruising the skies wearing pollution-monitoring backpacks.

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