An Influx Of New Tech Is Changing How We See & Act On Pollution

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Air pollution is deadly, and where you live determines just how likely it is to make you sick or to what degree it will shorten your life. Yet unlike speeding cars, violent tornadoes, or black mold, we can’t see it most of the time, even though its impact is deeply personal. And despite improvements made after highly visible events like the London Fog of the 1950s or the black soot in Pittsburgh a century ago, that general invisibility has held back progress in fighting air pollution.

But that’s starting to change. New insights about local air pollution are making the problem more visible and personal and the status quo untenable.

A vibrant and diverse sector is emerging to create air pollution maps at finer scales. This is a dramatic improvement over current techniques, which rely on instruments mounted on buildings and sophisticated modeling to provide a relatively accurate picture of the average air quality across a region. That would be adequate if we breathe average air between 10 and 30 feet up in the air. But as it stands, the current system can’t tell us what the air is like outside our front doors, at playgrounds or near senior centers, much less why.

While there is exciting progress and promise as air sensors become cheaper and more available, a diverse coalition of industry, activists, policymakers and researchers is critical to ensuring that the data is reliable, accessible and most of all, actionable. These networks of partners must collaborate on everything from data generation, digestion, analysis, visualization and application to actions on the ground to ensure that this new technology provides credible data that results in new policies to reduce air pollution and improve people’s lives.

New instrumentation ushers in a flood of data

Companies like Clarity, PurpleAir and PlumeLabs are producing both lower cost stationary and mobile monitors that consumers can buy for less than $300. Aclima partnered with Google Earth Outreach on Environmental Defense Fund’s Oakland air quality mapping project, to take millions of measurements using the company’s iconic cars. The team’s maps show that air pollution can be as much as eight times higher at one end of a city block than another. TD Environmental deployed a rugged system for Houston municipal cars to collect high-quality data that took about 10 minutes of driver time per day to deploy. Other innovators such as AirVeracity are actively building and testing new systems; MIT hopes to expand its City Scanner platform, while Air Monitors and Sonoma Technology are providing a vital link between data gathering and data analysis.


Leveraging existing infrastructure for new uses

Other firms that hadn’t previously participated in air pollution monitoring are adapting their existing assets to join this data revolution. For example, Understory, which measures and analyzes hyperlocal weather data, can add air quality monitors to its dense network of fixed stations. This approach of combining weather and air quality measurement is important as weather is a critical piece of forecasting air quality. The telematics firm Geotab is using helping cities understand how existing vehicles can be used for hyperlocal air pollution mapping, and is working with hardware developers to create low-cost air pollution instruments to stream data from more than one million connected vehicles. This is only the beginning, as innovators develop opportunities to map air pollution and use insights to co-design the city of the future.

Partners innovating data analysis

As millions of data points pour in, researchers must develop new ways to paint a picture of the pollution levels that accounts for each city’s unique geography, taking things like weather and time of day into account—all at a cost that can be scaled. EDF has been working with Universities like Rice, University of Texas at Austin, MIT, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Carnegie Mellon University, Cambridge University in England, University of California at Berkeley, University of Washington, and partners such as Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants and the UK’s National Physical Laboratory on exciting innovations in understanding and effectively using all of the data.

Creating maps that spark change

Some of the early research has found that people’s health and risk of death change from block to block based on pollution, and that research is just starting to give us a glimpse of the impacts of the pollution we all live with. This sensing revolution will fail it ends when research is published or pollution maps are posted. To make it truly transformative, community groups, companies and government officials need to collaborate, for example, by identifying where residents are experiencing higher rates of asthma, or where traffic snarls, and by developing solutions to mitigate the pollution.

Local insights and collaboration will creating lasting solutions—whether it’s new zoning, changes in driving patterns or improving timing of traffic lights, replacing high polluting trucks or reducing the particulates that are coming from the exhaust fans from our favorite restaurants. The technology, data and analysis are all critical to creating reliable, actionable maps, but keeping the end user in mind—residents—is perhaps the most important aspect of the new air pollution monitoring ecosystem and the one that will help realize its full potential to improve all of our lives, most dramatically those of the most vulnerable among us, the young, the elderly and the sick.

Millie Chu Baird is the Associate Vice President for the Office of Chief Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund
Follow them on Twitter at @EnvDefenseFund

This post was published with support of EDF; images from the company

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