Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

App could help community members of Aamjiwnaag First Nation

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

A maze of petrochemical plants is squeezed into a 100-block space in the southern outskirts of Sarnia, Ontario. Marked by a distinct smell of rotting eggs, gasoline, and melting asphalt, this area, dubbed the ‘Chemical Valley,’ houses more than 60 refineries that produce plastics, gasoline, synthetic rubber, and other products.

The industrial area — which constitutes 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry — was built around the reserve on which Aamjiwnaang First Nation members reside. Today, around 850 people live on the reserve, which was created after their traditional territory was ceded to European settlers over many decades. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, the air surrounding the reservation has been the most polluted in the country.

As long as the land remains enclosed by Chemical Valley, there are no means by which the Indigenous communities living on that land can find reprieve from the constant toxicity that surrounds them.

University of Toronto lab offers a potential solution

The Technoscience Research Team (TRU), has taken a meaningful step toward a solution. Researchers at this Indigenous-led lab at U of T launched a Pollution Reporter app, which allows members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to report the pollutants in and around their land, and how they are affected by them.

The TRU is a cross-faculty research unit located at the Faculty of Information and jointly supported by the Faculty of Arts & Science, following its establishment at the Women and Gender Studies Institute. It draws together social justice approaches to science, and technology studies from across the university.

“Traditionally, Indigenous communities are seen as objects of research, but our lab is dedicated to flipping the tables on that,” said Dr. Michele Murphy, the TRU’s director and a professor at the Women and Gender Studies Institute, in an interview with The Varsity.

“We are a group of Indigenous researchers studying how colonialism works when it comes to oil refineries, environmental regulation, and so on. That’s our work,” she explained.

TRU’s research focuses on the Imperial Oil Refinery in Chemical Valley, which is the largest and oldest polluter in the area. Other refineries in the area also produce high quantities of pollutants, with up to 50–60 times the amount of harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide or benzene, compared to similar refineries across the valley’s river in the United States.

How the app works

The TRU’s Pollution Reporter App offers an accessible way for community members and the public to make reports about pollution. These reports can alert the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks of pollution incidents, spills, leaks, and flares.

According to Vanessa Gray, one of the developers of the app, the current system in place to report the impact of a spill or pollutant is by calling the Spills Action Centre, which is located in Toronto. Callers would be asked about what they were doing during the incident, the direction of the wind during the incident, and other questions that are often difficult to answer.

Gray mentioned that the app allows users to fill those categories out themselves, along with other categories, such as where they might be feeling the effects of those chemicals by looking at different icons. Chemicals from Imperial Oil Refinery are also searchable, which enables community members to get answers much quicker.

App also provides health information regarding pollutants

The app also enables users to search for information about the area, according to the related symptoms, health hazards, or chemicals present. Users can access pollution emissions data with research about known health hazards.

The app works by linking publicly-available data on refinery emissions from the federal government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory to known health hazards, based on peer-reviewed medical literature.

A main advantage of the app is that it translates chemical jargon for community members to understand, which could help raise awareness about the failing health of their land, waters, and community.

Rsearchers at the TRU hope that the Pollution Reporter App can amplify the ability of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s voice to be heard.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl is the Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society.

Opinion: We don’t want this kind of Good Samaritan

Donation app to support homeless is divisive and cold

Opinion: We don’t want this kind of Good Samaritan

When was the last time you saw a homeless person panhandling? How did it make you feel? Guilty? Annoyed? Maybe just maybe you wanted to help, but weren’t sure how.

Well, much like food delivery and astrology, there’s an app for that. After witnessing a Black man panhandling, former tech employee Jonathan Kumar created Samaritan, a contemporary mechanism to help homeless individuals. Samaritan offers privileged passersby a way to help the homeless without needing to make eye-contact or use cash. Donations are even tax refundable.

Kumar’s program has two main goals: to provide urbanites with a convenient way to donate to homeless people in their area and to help homeless people develop closer connections with their community.

After two years of operation in the Seattle area, Kumar hopes to expand his enterprise. However, the Samaritan approach is not as good as it may appear and — despite homeless and social inequality crises in Toronto — it is absolutely not a solution worthy of import.

A seemingly straightforward system

Potential donors download the Samaritan app, which alerts them when they pass by a participating homeless person. The homeless participants are tagged with beacons that beam their photo, personal story, and financial need to the would-be Good Samaritan’s phone. In most photographs, program participants wear their beacons around their necks like crosses.

Givers can select the amount of money they would like to send and cue the transaction in a few swipes. The money is then sent to the beacon holders, who can redeem the donation at participating stores.  

While participation in the Samaritan program does not necessarily preclude the homeless from seeking other avenues of respite, it explicitly seeks to help sustain those left behind by mainstream sources of support.

While this may seem like a step forward, let’s take a closer look.

Despite Kumar’s lofty ambitions, the app itself is not particularly popular among the people it was purportedly designed to help.

In one telling interaction recorded in the Seattle Times, a Samaritan employee stood outside a temporary work placement agency, attempting to drum up interest in the beacons. One man, initially intrigued, looked at the demonstrative beacon the employee held. When he saw it, he asked, “It labels me as a hobo?”

Another reason for the program’s low participation rate is the requirements it imposes on homeless users. Not only are their choices and movement restricted, but beacon wearers must attend monthly meetings with Samaritan counsellors, otherwise they will lose access to the money on their account. The disciplinary tool swings between the collarbones of the wearer.

Gatekeepers to charity

Although Kumar has stated that Samaritan does not use institutional vetting processes for potential beacon recipients, he argues they seek out “those downtown that are truly struggling with homelessness and actively are trying to get themselves out.”

But how can they tell who is truly suffering, and moreover, who sets the definition?

Put simply, the donors determine who is allowed to avail of the service. Through the linkage of initial appearance and quick biographies with donations, participants must market themselves to their potential Samaritan. The appearances and backstories displayed on the app become weapons: a spade and a scalpel used to shape the kinds of people others want to give to.

Even if the donation is given, its very form creates other entanglements. The digital currency donated by Samaritans can only be used to buy “the essentials,” as determined by the developers who created the app and the stores willing to work with the program.

And if they do not have a cell phone or a data plan, beacon holders have no way of knowing who donated or in what amount. In order to check their own balance, they would have to find a participating store and inquire.

Siloing social classes

One might argue — and indeed, Kumar and his supporters do — that removing the cash component of roadside donations enables more spontaneous generosity, which in turn leads to more support for the homeless.

However, the giver  not the recipient  clearly benefits more from this cashlessness. It’s not just the removal of financial autonomy from the homeless person that is troubling either — reducing donations to a swipe sanitizes what should be uncomfortable.

Although some might insist that the app genuinely does help create connections, Samaritan actually works to further silo different social classes. Today’s Good Samaritans can give without looking up from their phones and feel better about themselves without actually encountering anyone. The app makes local suffering as distant as possible.

Moreover, valving compassionate impulses off through a quick dash of a digital credit card could reduce the likelihood of givers becoming more involved in long-term aid or advocacy efforts. After all, they have done their good deed of the day.

At the end of the day, Samaritan is a for-profit company, which makes donors pay up to 7.5 per cent of their total donation for the privilege of a painless transaction.

Contrary to many contemporary invocations, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about financial generosity. In the biblical story, a man is robbed and left bleeding on the side of a busy road. Two travellers pass him by, but the third — a Samaritan — stops. He cleans the victim’s wounds, clothes him, feeds him, seats him on his donkey, and shares his room with him.

Fundamentally, it’s a story of human connection — of messy, visceral sharing between those left intact and those robbed. This is the spirit of giving we must foster. Look to the work of Eva’s Initiative for Homeless Youth, for example, which fulfils the short term needs of homeless youth in Toronto of housing and food while also offering training and emotional support.

Actions rooted in our fundamental closeness, not distance, are the only path toward resolving homelessness and social inequality in Toronto.

Accupedo, others, miscount steps

U of T researchers find many fitness pedometer apps provide unreliable data

Accupedo, others, miscount steps

Researchers from U of T have found that several of the most popular smartphone pedometer applications misrepresent their sensitivity and the accuracy of their step counts.

The new study ran a series of tests on three free pedometer apps — Accupedo, Moves, and Runtastic — in a number of controlled and free-living settings. Participants were asked to complete walking, running, and stair-climbing tests while holding the phone in their hand and wearing a traditional pedometer on their hip. In each instance, the traditional pedometer performed better whereas the phone apps were generally under reporting steps by more than five  per cent. In some cases the phone apps were off by more than 20 per cent.

The researchers also incorporated a driving test to see if the phone was smart enough to know if it was in a car. The result was equally discouraging, as each app failed to distinguish a slow car ride from a walking pace. 

Technological inaccuracy in the fitness world complicates an already precarious public health climate in North America — Statistics Canada reported that only 15 per cent of adults are meeting the recommended level of physical activity, which is 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week. With walking at 80 paces a minute considered moderate activity, the gravity of the situation becomes clearer. A whopping 69 per cent, are spending their waking hours in sedentary activity. The advent of on-demand TV like Netflix and Shomi brings with it a new age of inactivity.

Self-monitoring can be an effective strategy to increase physical activity; it has been known to play an important role in producing behavioural change. “Accurate self-monitoring is important to establishing positive behaviour change,” said Krystn Orr, the lead author of the study.

“First by writing down your behaviour, such as steps, you become accountable to yourself. Secondly, self-monitoring can also highlight areas of improvement, providing a method for creating and monitoring your progress towards a goal. Lastly, self-monitoring can lead to creating an action plan or physical activity schedule,” she added.

But if the applications that we rely on to self-monitor our physical activity are not accurate, they may defeat the whole purpose of a positive behaviour change.

“By having significantly negative error percentage, i.e. under-reporting of steps, users may become discouraged when working towards a step count goal. The individual may give up from a sense of low self-efficacy,” Orr added.

In short, the researchers would not recommend using these smartphone pedometer applications.