Science Meets Art in the Black Cloud Citizen Science League

Black Cloud Citizen Science League mascot Cloudy Mcpufferson on a sunny day image

Mike over at Inhabitat tipped us on Inhabitat's review of the Black Cloud Project. The group's name, the Black Cloud Citizen Science League, glows with the promise of super-heroic aid in the time of need.

But are you in need? Indeed, if you consider that what you don't know can hurt you. The students at the Manual Arts high school in Los Angeles certainly learned an interesting lesson. What started as a game has now grown into a community project. If you want to know the secret identities of the Black Cloud Citizen Science League, read on.The Surprising Lessons of the Air Quality GameThe game consisted of placing air quality monitors at unknown locations in Echo Park in LA. Students had to find the monitors by following the statistical data electronically compiled from the monitors. Students tracked down the worst air quality of all: in their own classroom.

What may come as a surprise to students is well known to many who study air quality. The rate of air exchange indoors is low, contributing to a build-up of contaminants in our own breathing air. Students improved classroom air quality by opening windows more often.

Air Quality Monitoring as an Art Form
The Black Cloud Project monitors are called PuffTrons. The PuffTrons -- powder blue boxes adorned with the ever-watching, many-eyed Cloudy McPufferson -- measure light, temperature, carbon dioxide and VOCs (volatile organic carbons, which are precursors for smog).

Anyone can join the Black Cloud Citizen Science League by volunteering to sponsor a monitor in a location where the sponsor can provide 110 AC power and telecommunication capability. You can support the Black Cloud Citizen Science League by ordering a Cloudy McPufferson patch as well. And you can read The Daily Polluter, the project blog where stories on how to reduce air pollution can be shared or check out the air quality monitoring network.

Conspiracy Theories and the Power of Knowledge
If you subscribe to the conspiracy theories that official air monitoring stations are often deliberately placed to provide a somewhat more optimistic picture of the pollution conditions due to the huge political disincentives of failing to meet air quality standards, then a citizens' air monitoring network will appeal to you.

And in any event, knowledge is power. By seeing the effects of our actions on air quality, the Black Cloud Citizen Science League is like a Kill-a-Watt for air emissions. Although it is interesting to note that PuffTrons do not measure particulate matter (a fancy scientific name for dust), a common pollutant associated with asthma and other health problems. It is probably also worth noting that carbon dioxide monitoring probably provides little information with respect to global warming; but studies have shown reduced performance in students when classrooms CO2 levels are elevated.

You Decide: Is it Art?
Of course, there is that ever nagging question: is it art? Well, take a look at the list of organizers of the Black Cloud Project. It includes a costume designer, an arts manager, an arts teacher, a couple artist/programmers, an artist, and a documentary filmmaker. Where there are artists, there is art, says I. It sure got me thinking. If you live in LA, let us know in the comments if you have seen Cloudy McPufferson around town.

More about the Black Cloud Citizen Scientist League
Inhabitat: Black Cloud Citizen Scientist League
Black Cloud Project
More on Air Quality in TreeHugger
TreeHugger Picks: Improving Indoor Air Quality
Green Basics: VOCs, Indoor Air Quality and Respiratory Health
Green Basics: Causes Of, Testing, and Monitoring Indoor Air Pollution

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