On a tree next to a canal in Amsterdam, a tiny birdhouse glows bright green when the air is clean. If you're standing nearby, the birdhouse will also give you a free Wi-Fi connection—but only if pollution levels are low enough.
Called TreeWifi, the birdhouse is the first in a series of pollution sensors that designer Joris Lam plans to install throughout the city.
The project started when Lam wanted to learn how polluted the air was on his own street, but all he could find was generic data about areas far away from where he lived.
"This lack of visibility of something as important as the quality of the air we breathe struck me," he says. "Being a designer, I set out to find a simple way to make air pollution visible to citizens in a way that people just understand on an emotional level, rather than having to dig through data and maps."
When someone stands near the tree and connects to the network, they can see a screen with information about local air quality and how to improve it. If the levels of pollution are healthy, the free Internet connection opens up.
"I think to get people involved in a subject they'd rather ignore it's always good to reward positive change in behavior," says Lam. As the project progresses, he hopes that the city can offer bigger rewards than free Wi-Fi. "Say for instance you make a deal with the city that if you and your neighbors improve air quality for three months straight, the city will then install a new playground for the kids, or catch up on maintenance of public spaces. For me that would be the ultimate goal."
Inside the birdhouse, an electro-chemical sensor measures nitrogen dioxide pollution. At a cost around $200, it's less accurate than some sensors on the market that can cost 25 times as much, but it makes the kit affordable for people who aren't researchers.
Lam chose to add the technology to a birdhouse to make it feel friendlier. "In this age of mass surveillance and machines tracking your every move I thought it would be refreshing to design something as simple as a birdhouse," he says. "The roof is completely transparent so if people get curious they can always take a peek at what's inside. There are no secrets to it and it's there for citizens to use however they want."
For now, the birdhouse doesn't actually work as a home for birds—but the designers are investigating how they might tweak the design to use the heat from the electronics as a way to keep birds warm in the winter. They also plan to supply the technology so that others can design their own housing for it.
"By keeping the design simple anyone can participate in this project," he says.
The project, which previously received an Awesome Foundation grant, is currently raising money to finish the Amsterdam installation on a crowdfunding site called Heroes and Friends.
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