Sara Longo, a native Pittsburgher, earned a Biology degree and French minor from Allegheny College. She then spent several years in clinical smoking cessation research at the University of Pittsburgh while working as a TSS for the Watson Institute. After leaving her clinical work, she took her career in a new direction by co-founding the social sharing app, Share Closet, which ignited her passion for empowerment through technology. She now carries that passion through to her volunteer work at ACEing Autism and to her career as the Operations Manager for Speck, where she works to empower people to breathe easier.
Could you please provide a brief history about how Speck Sensor was established?
Speck is a product of Airviz Inc., which is a spinoff from the CREATE Lab at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute. Speck is manufactured under license from Carnegie Mellon University. The idea for Speck was born out of a separate project in the CREATE Lab called “BodyTrack.” The goal of BodyTrack was to empower individuals to explore potential environment and health interactions (food sensitivities, asthma or migraine triggers, sleep problems, etc.) and better assess strategies they think might help - air quality being one of them. Because of the high amount of demand for an air quality monitor, we decided to form a formal company to mass-produce Specks.
What is pM2.5? How does it affect health? How does the Speck Sensor address this?
PM2.5, or more informally, fine particulate matter, refers to particles of matter suspended in the air that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. These particles are so small that they penetrate deep into the lungs, blocking the air sacs where oxygen enters the bloodstream. PM2.5 is an EPA-monitored pollutant. The Speck measures and reports on particulates in the air and gives a count of particles per liter of air.
Could you please tell us what some of the strengths of the Speck Sensor product?
The Speck is Wi-Fi enabled so you can direct all your data reports to an open-source data repository where you can view and interact with your data. You can also download your data for further analysis. Another key distinguishing feature of the Speck is related to data ownership—your Speck data belongs to you! You have the power to view, analyze and share that information as you see fit. We offer an optional data repository to facilitate data collection, but never assume ownership of your information.
What is your company’s value proposition?
We are all about empowerment. The Speck device itself gives people real-time feedback for what’s going on in their homes, allowing them to learn and understand what is happening and how they can make a change for their own indoor environment. We are in an era of big data and “internet of things,” but most corporations try to monetize data that is collected by everyday users, like you and I. They have everyone else collect data, but they store it, they own it, and they run analytics on it. We wanted to invert that power relationship, so our data repository is open source, and our users are the owners of their own data. At any time, the owner of the data can share it or keep it private. To us, this is thinking about empowerment in a better way.
The open platform for data sharing seems a unique proposition for your product. What kind of advantages will this provide your customers and the general public? What’s the aim?
Yes, we love it too! The specksensor.com web site uses another system we developed called ESDR (Environmental Sensor Data Repository) as its datastore. ESDR is open-source and all user account info and Speck data uploads directly to ESDR, allowing users to view their data over any device (mobile or desktop). We are very excited about ESDR and we hope that people will act as independent scientists to explore what is happening in their environment and use their historical information to understand what is happening in their home to make a change to better impact health and air quality. After they understand what is happening in their homes, they can then become a community advocate for clean air and educate others on safety and best practices for indoor air quality.
For example, a middle school in Salt Lake City borrowed a few Specks to use in the classroom. They placed the Specks near windows where parents idle cars to pick up their children in the afternoons. The kids tallied air quality with the Specks, then launched an anti-idling campaign with their parents. A week later, they measured air quality again and learned to use the data to do statistical correlations. The result was an amazing correlation between decreased number of cars and an increase in air quality. We were thrilled to hear about how these children learned to advocate for themselves, learn how to talk to their parents about air quality, and learn how to use a scientific instrument to make their world a better place.
How do you monetize air quality in the years to come? Many companies see data as the key to monetization.
It is our assumption that, in the next few years, air sensors will be included in home monitoring systems, automobiles and mobile devices. We have done work already in building relationships with decision-makers in the industry and that’s the kind of work we see ourselves doing in the future.
Where do you see yourselves positioned in this future?
We are doing research to create a very small sensor that can fit inside a mobile device. So we are doing that kind work alongside the Speck Sensor and have research going in a couple of different areas. We hope that Speck usage increases and hope that usage increases with other air quality monitoring tools. We can have effective microchips that will the air quality sensor in the future, and we can work with those larger companies do make sure that sensor works with other air quality devices.
Will there be room for the standalone residential air quality in the future?
I guess we will have to see what happens. There is a large education piece to this market. Even in Pittsburgh, where we are headquartered, there is terrible air quality because of our steel industry. A lot of the residences think that the air quality problem has gone away because they do not see the black cloud of smoke and soot all over the buildings anymore. Often when we are comparing Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, etc., Pittsburgh is right up there with them. I am sure that air quality sensors will be further utilized as people become more educated.
How does the Speck Sensor differ from the competition?
We believe that our mission of empowerment is what makes us differ the most fromour competition. In addition, we are working hard to facilitate community access and collaboration with a national library campaign. People with low incomes tend to live in areas with the worst air quality, so those who can't afford their own Speck — each costs $200 — can borrow one for a few weeks. Currently, the Speck is available to borrow from 14 libraries in Pittsburgh, and we are now piloting a library program in other cities - Chicago, Illinois, Fairbanks, Alaska and Milford, Pennsylvania all have Specks in their public libraries as well.
Many of the air quality issues impact the developing world the most. How can we help educate them more about these issues?
Large cities in poor and developing nations tend to have more air pollution than cities in developed nations, so education is quite important for the developing world. We are working hard to connect with international community action groups and business centers that share our values and beliefs in education and air quality advocacy. We currently ship Specks all over the world, so it is our intent to connect with community groups and libraries that will partner with us to spread air quality education.
Who is currently buying these air sensors?
We have found success connecting with communities in areas that traditionally have bad air quality: Pittsburgh, India, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. In addition, we have noticed interest from the following groups: those who have asthma or heart disease and are interested in improving their health, parents and those who take care of young children, people interested in sports and outdoor activities, and those who are interested in tech and quantifying their environment.
After the Speck Sensor identifies an air quality issue, what are some of the things that can be done to remedy them?
If you are seeing high Speck readings, here are some steps you can take to ensure you are working to fight indoor fine particles and pollution:
Wash pillows, furniture (did you know you should vacuum furniture?), or plush toys frequently in hot water with gentle detergent.
Limit window opening during periods of high pollen counts in outdoor air or when the weather is extremely hot.
Wipe surfaces with a damp cloth to remove dust, and wear a filter mask to ensure you are not inhaling dust.
Vacuum often, and do so with HEPA bags and filters with fine particle filtration. Be sure to do this when those with asthma are out.
To reduce the use of volatile organic products, use simple cleaning products such as soap, vinegar, or baking soda, and reduce the use of pesticides or paint that contains VOCs.
Eliminate smoke and combustion acts or appliances (i.e. candles, the act of pan frying).
Filter outdoor air using a high performance filter in a circulation air system. To reduce indoor fine particles, use HEPA stand-alone fans or duct filters.
Tighten the house/building envelope to reduce the amount of outdoor pollution that makes its way indoors.
I know Speck Sensor secured venture funding from Infosys. How do you plan on monetizing the sensor in the future?
Infosys has connections with lot of larger corporations we are lucky to work with, so the relationship has already been very helpful. We see this market growing in next few years, and it’s our assumption that body sensors will be included in it, monitoring the homes in mobile devices like inside the cars, so people don’t need to buy separate devices for the air quality monitoring. We have endearing relationships with people; that’s a kind of work our team did
How do you envision this market in the future (next 5 years, 10 years, etc.)?
We are already seeing an increase in awareness and education around environmental issues, so we expect this market to grow significantly over the next few years. In fact, we see new sensors on the market quite often. The dream is for air quality sensors to be ubiquitous! We imagine that air quality sensors will be included in mobile devices, home monitoring systems, luxury cars, etc.
What are some of the challenges companies face in this emerging category?
There is a huge education piece to air quality advocacy. In Pittsburgh (which has the nickname “steel city”, people think the city’s pollution problem is over since we no longer have that classic Pittsburgh image of a black sky and soot on the ground. This is simply not true, so we have developed a smartphone app that allows users to check outdoor air quality (pulled from federal sensors) and compare it to other US cities, or their indoor Speck data. The goal is to make people aware of how serious the air quality problem is. We see this issue repeated in many cities that we work with.
Most of the companies that we speak to state that the market has huge potential. That said, several companies are not able to succeed. What according to you is the reason?
It is costly and difficult to develop a reliable air quality sensor. Regarding VOC sensors, we haven't found any gas sensing technologies that are both low cost and accurate, but given the sudden interest on personal air quality monitors, we expect these sensors to develop rapidly. We chose to focus on quantifying fine particulate matter because of the negative health impacts and the fact that individuals can make small changes to improve the amount of fine particulate matter in their homes.
How can customers know which air purifier to buy?
Our advice is to do consumer reports-type research before you purchase. Using a Speck alongside of an air filter or purifier will definitely tell you if it is doing its job of filtering fine particles.
What needs to happen to get sensor costs down?
We can predict the cost of sensors to decrease as air quality monitoring becomes ubiquitous. Our mission is to provide an affordable tool that makes the invisible visible, and empowers you to make informed decisions about how to improve your personal air quality. The next version of Speck will include a relative humidity sensor at no additional cost!
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