Visual Communications Studio Client Project
Sonic Pi | XD | Protopie | Photoshop | InDesign | Illustrator
Visuals | UX
5 weeks
The Problem
Our client, Environmental Charter Schools (ECS), a tuition-free K-8 charter school committed to multidisciplinary learning and “eco-literacy,” came to us with the challenge of addressing air pollution in Pittsburgh. ECS’s curriculum is anchored around outdoor education. They encourage students to get out of the classroom, connect with the community, and tackle real world problems. Their concern about air pollution was twofold. First, as a mission-driven school, they were interested in environmental sustainability and teach their kids to embody similar values. Second, since their curriculum involves outdoor activities, air pollution is a detriment to their students’ health and learning. 
The goal of this project was to implement a solution that would help ECS address the issue of air quality in the Pittsburgh region.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
How might we spark moments of consciousness around air quality in Pittsburgh?
Research & Discovery
To better understand the landscape, we conducted research in three phases; literature review, social media listening, and primary research. 
We reviewed various journal articles about air pollution interventions in cities in the United States and across the world. We also researched articles about science communication to better understand how to convey scientific facts to the general public. 
We looked on four social media sites, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to see if people were talking about this subject at all, and if so, what they were saying. We focused our exploration on Pittsburgh as we were curious to understand how Pittsburgh citizens perceived air pollution.
We released a survey called “Pittsburgh & You” which helped us to understand the relationship that Pittsburgh citizens had with their city, as well as better understand their values and identities. Our data analysis revealed that almost 50% of participants were actively involved in the community and that about 60% of our respondents were impacted by air pollution. Qualitative analysis revealed that our participants had traditional values, such as family, friends, community, and religion. Most significantly, we learned that people have little to no conception of the air pollution problem in Pittsburgh.
While ECS presented us with many different questions and approaches to the problem, based on our research and conversations with ECS, it was clear that there was a primary need to have candid conversations about air pollution. In particular, we were curious to explore how to integrate ideas about air quality into the narratives of identity and perception in Pittsburgh. We wanted to get to the seat of the problem by trying to solve for cognitive dissonance around air pollution awareness. In order to do that we needed to understand how people understood themselves in relationship to their city and the environment. ​​​​​​​We utilized affinity mapping to flesh out our ideas before concepting.
While brainstorming we thought about what influences behavior change, what generates moments of transformation or a shift in consciousness. We concluded that experience is key to generating these moments as experience is embodied and deeply personal. From there we began brainstorming from a non-visual, sense-based perspective, asking how pollution might be heard, smelt, felt, and tasted. It was important for us to embed our project within the local context, so we also brainstormed ideas for how to integrate our research about people’s perception of Pittsburgh into our project. ​​​​​​​
One challenge we encountered in prototyping our idea was how to turn data into sound that sounded different enough from city to city. We picked a few cities based on their general popularity, as well as their air quality data. We mathematically normalized 2018 air quality data pulled from the EPA’s Air Quality Index website and created a data set that mapped the highest value of all the cities to the highest value in the MIDI note system. We converted Each AQI data point into a musical chord. The lower the number, indicating good air quality, the more clearly you can hear the sound. We first explored an online tool that would convert data into sound, but we did not have much control over the output of sound. We then downloaded a tool called Sonic Pi and consulted with a software engineer to help us create code for the sound output. ​​​​​​​
The Solution
A flexible tool, created to spark moments of consciousness within people, with the goal of fostering ongoing concern about air pollution. It consists of 3 phases:
A website which encourages people to think about air pollution in a new way by allowing them to hear what air pollution sounds like in six different American cities. 
We picked a website as the first touch point because it is easily usable, accessible, and distributable. We believe it is most effective as a tool that ECS uses to pique the attention of any stakeholder on the issue of air pollution. The website is a way to create shared interest in air pollution before any conversation starts, because without a shared interest in the topic, conversations for change are less effective. 
A mobile app which provides a personalized experience of air pollution, in real time, through data sonification. 
While the website allows visitors to compare air pollution in six pre-selected cities, the app would allow visitors to generate sound in real-time based on air-quality data that is monitored around the world. The mobile app serves to help ritualize the experience of checking air quality, just as we check the weather, to generate ongoing concern.
A city-wide campaign which launches this conversation into the broader Pittsburgh community. 
This campaign would take the form of publicizing the website and the app through posters, postcards, and other informational materials, as well as a physical interactive exhibition that combines the experience of the website and mobile app, located at ECS or a similar venue. While ECS has a strong community of interested stakeholders, this is ultimately a topic that impacts Pittsburgh at large, and there is power in numbers. The more people interested in fixing the issue of air pollution, the more likely policymakers are to listen.
This solution is not a specific call to action, but rather a way to encourage citizens to be engaged in thought and conversations around this topic. Our hope is that this tool can be used as an entry point, to spark tiny moments of transformation that will lead to long-term actions and behavior changes.
Back to Top