Shenango Coke Works is a massive coke processing facility on Neville Island in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is a large industrial site ironically situated in the midst of 70,000 residents who witness the flares, captive emissions, and industrial smells of heavy industry daily. Just last month, the residents of surrounding neighborhoods, organized together as Allegheny County Clean Air Now, succeeded in bringing the Philadelphia-based head of the regional EPA to their local church for a meeting with the local health department and with local citizenry. During the meeting, the EPA officials faced a projection that was remarkable. For more than a year, locals have worked with the local university to create an annotated visualization of emissions, smell reports, air quality reports and wind direction history: the Shenango Channel. The projector right in front of the EPA director showed thousands of community-captured smoke events, demonstrating just how much pollution was flowing into the neighborhood. The meeting was a notable success, with local reporter Don Hopey of the Post-Gazette reporting on the EPA administrator's newsmaking statement:
But what I see in the video [Shenango Channel] is totally unacceptable.
Fast-forward just four weeks and, following further community advocacy with new visualization technologies in their arsenal, DTE has just announced the closure of Shenango, as reported by WESA. The lesson in all this is that a strong community advocacy agenda, when combined with the interactive visual evidence that the latest computer vision makes possible, can result in a narrative that is just too hard to deny. Technology, when used well, can be a tool for empowerment by locals, just as it can, in the wrong hands, lead to surveillance, behavioral analytics for profit and the accentuation of inequality. For now, let's celebrate a wonderful positive example of technology used for social good.