Thursday, 5 May 2016

CleanSpace review

The tag. It's neatly styled, but does get rather grubby.
I have recently had the opportunity to review the CleanSpace app and tag for Good Housekeeping - but there's only limited space there, so I'm going into more detail here about this personal air pollution monitor/clean travel app.

The CleanSpace tag is a slim plastic device about the size of mobile phone, which monitors levels of carbon monoxide. Powered by wi-fi, so it never needs a charge, the tag connects to a smartphone by Bluetooth, passing on information to the CleanSpace app. The idea is both to encourage the user to travel in a green fashion and to be able to keep an eye on the air pollution on your route, choosing a healthier alternative if necessary.

The tag only measures carbon monoxide levels, which seems a touch dubious when one of the main concerns in city air pollution is the levels of particulates, notably from diesel exhausts. However, I was reassured by Ben Barrett from King's College, London, who told me:
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a good tracer for combustion sources in general – vehicle exhaust, gas cooking, cigarettes, biomass burning etc – all of which are also sources of particulate matter. Therefore it is true to say that carbon monoxide is a good measure of combustion-related particulates. CO also has the advantage of being relatively stable, so more straightforward to measure with a miniature low-cost electrochemical sensor. CO is not related to non-combustion sources of particulate matter, such as construction dust or transboundary ‘secondary’ PM (nitrates, sulphates and ammonia). However, as the CleanSpace sensor is principally designed to allow users to monitor relative exposure to vehicle exhaust as they travel (thus linked to their CleanSpace low carbon miles), this is a intricacy that is unlikely to affect the vast majority of users.
The app. The control panel is a little
confusing to begin with - there's a lot
going on.
So far, so good, then. The CleanSpace app is available free from the App store and has a dual function, which can make it a trifle confusing. It both keeps track of the output of your tag and notes your miles travelled and how many of them it assumes to be green - i.e. travelling by foot or by bike, rather than by car, bus or train.You can use the app without a tag, just to keep track of your mileage, although you then miss out on the personal air pollution details.

As you hit certain targets for clean miles, you are awarded little rewards, from a free coffee for your first mile to the rather more dubious benefits of free yoga sessions. In a particularly unnerving fashion, the app also tells you how many clean miles you have travelled in comparison to the average user of the app. The trouble with this is that if, like me, you are a walker, your typical mileage will be dwarfed by cyclists. (See the image. I recorded 1.44 miles last week (I did more, but I didn't have tracking on all week), but the average user did 25.69 miles.) It would be sensible if you could tell the app which you were, and it compared like with like. Similarly, it seems too broad brush that it treats all motorised transport the same - so I don't get any brownie points for travelling on a train rather than car, or an electric car rather than a diesel taxi.

Fun though the app is on its own, it has the potential to be far more interesting when linked to the tag. Setting this up proved a little fiddly. It took several attempts to get the tag to link to my phone by Bluetooth, and when it had, I didn't realise for a while that it expected to me go onto the website and validate my first data there, rather than being able to do so on the phone app. Inevitably also, when the tag is active, the app uses battery on the phone even faster than the distinctly noticable noticable drain from the app when it is monitoring travel.

I managed some medium quality air by walking
near a dual carriageway in Swindon
The travel monitor in the app mostly works fine - it just occasionally missed a bit of a journey - I found the tag rather less reliable. Sometimes the phone didn't think it was linked to the tag. Other times I made a journey with the tag active and it registered no pollutants - yet I had been walking alongside dual carriageways through the middle of Bristol. The problem seems to be either the tag's power system, or its Bluetooth link. (The other possibility is that found it hard to meter the air in packed pocket, but I also tried it in a loose top shirt pocket, and it still registered nothing.) Either way, the tag was more intermittent than I liked and only managed to monitor about half my walked journeys - though if you regularly take the same route, that's plenty to build up a picture.

You can take a look at your air quality exposure as a graph showing peaks, or as a map, which seems to combine the data from any tag it can lay its hands on to give the best picture it can of its surroundings.

There's no doubt this is a great idea, and though in this relatively early phase it seems a little over complex, it lacks the ability to tailor to your travel means, and it can be inconsistent, it does, nonetheless, provide a useful overview of how you are travelling and what the air quality is like.

The app is downloadable from app stores, while the tag is available direct from CleanSpace or from Amazon.co.uk.

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