If you ever listened to the old radio show “The Shadow”, you know that the central caped crusader had a legion of agents, who all kept in communication with him using sparkling rings. Though its central figure is not a masked hero, but a cuddly mass of polluted air, the Black Cloud Citizen Scientist League has a similar feel to it. The league distributes tiny pastel blue boxes – PuffTrons – that measure local air quality throughout the day and transmit their findings to a web server. The secret code includes levels of light, temperature, carbon dioxide, and VOCs.

Organized by a group of artists and enigineers, the Black Cloud Project began as a game for the students at Manual Arts High school. Several sensors were deployed in mystery spots around Echo Park in Los Angeles, and the students then had to track them down based upon the online statistics. The found, disturbingly, that the sensor in their own classroom read the highest levels of carbon dioxide, and was overall one of the most polluted sites in the neighborhood. The students reacted by keeping their windows open throughout the day to encourage better air circulation.

The name “Black Cloud” originates with the mysterious dark masses that appear every October above Cairo, Egypt. These sooty specters are possibly the result of burned agricultural waste and urban pollution. The League will distribute PuffTrons to art galleries throughout Cairo in January renamed “Green Nodes” that will not send their data to a web server.

Currently there are PuffTrons on surveilance throughout Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Sites include Zellerbach Hall, the Berkeley Institute of Design, and the Machine Project Gallery, where the League recently unveiled the findings of their work in Echo Park. The event included a DIY air-quality sensor building workshop and a party complete with black cloud ice cream. Anyone who would like a PuffTron in their neighborhood can contact the project and request one: they can also score a patch with the black cloud logo on it.

+ Black Cloud Citizen Scientist League