The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are conducting a contest challenging innovators to develop a system that could turn thousands — or even millions — of citizens into walking pollution-monitoring stations. Under the “My Air, My Health” challenge, the EPA and the HHS are offering $160,000 in prizes for creating “a personal, portable, near-real-time, location-specific system to monitor and report air pollutants and potentially related physiological parameters.”

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Lots of solid research has connected air pollutants to physiological effects. But what the feds hope to do is develop a network of location-aware mobile monitoring stations — attached to people — that can provide a large-scale, “crowdsourced” base of data that makes a continual connection between the air pollutants people encounter in their daily lives and the effects on their health.

Imagine, for example, that researchers wanted to learn how particulate pollution affects heart patients in Los Angeles. They might be able to enlist a thousand people with heart disease and equip each of them with recorders that measure heart rate and mobile phones specially designed to monitor particulate levels in the atmosphere. The devices could continuously monitor the air quality and its effects on the patients, uploading that data over the mobile network in real time for crunching by researchers.

The My Air, My Health (MAMH) contest challenges teams to develop a proof-of-concept pilot project demonstrating how the proposed system can successfully bring together data from personal air quality devices and physiological monitors, “showing how these types of data and sensors can be integrated for practical use by health and environmental agencies, and by individual citizens.” Inventing new technology is not a requirement. Participants can incorporate commercially-available sensors in their plans.

The MAMH challenge is implemented through open-innovation marketplace Innocentive – a cloud-based platform that brings problem-solvers together with companies and organizations (seekers) looking for solutions to problems. The MAMH Challenge will work in two steps. In phase one, teams of solvers will present plans or proposals before the deadline of Oct. 5, 2012 outlining their prototype designs, development plans, and pilot studies. Four finalists will then be awarded $15,000 each and will go on to compete for a $100,000 prize for the most effective solution based on working prototypes and pilot studies. The deadline for phase two will be May 19, 2013.

In an announcement from the EPA, agency science advisor Glenn Paulson expressed enthusiasm about the contest format for this innovation project: “This challenge provides an opportunity to tap into the ingenuity of Americans to build technology to improve health.”

+ My Air, My Health Challenge