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Tina Casey headshot

Google Maps + Pollution Sensors Show How Cities "Breathe"

city traffic air pollution

Climate Week NYC was packed with high profile pledges and policy announcements calling for hard core actions that treat carbon emissions as an extremely hazardous form of air pollution. Acting efficiently on those promises is a different matter, one that requires precise new tools for collecting data, identifying problem areas and measuring progress. And, while the main focus is on carbon emissions, other forms of air pollution require attention, too.

That's where today's sensor announcement by Google and and the recently unveiled "stealth" startup Aclima comes in.

New tools for air pollution

Before we get to the announcement, let's pause for a look at the bigger picture. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) collects data from a network of air pollution monitors stationed all over the country, and that's where the problem is. The key word is stationed, as in stationary. Conventional air quality monitors sit in one place. They may be transportable, but they are not mobile.

Partly because of their immobility, conventional air quality monitors are especially limited in their ability to pinpoint problem source in complex urban environments, where airborne particulate matter leads to asthma and other serious health issues.  Conventional monitors are also expensive and they fall far short in today's world of connectivity, open source data sharing and user-friendly interfaces that the general public can understand.

Air pollution and the Aclima consortium

EPA identified these shortcomings in urban air pollution monitoring several years ago, and in 2013 the agency launched a public-private effort to develop a highly mobile system of air pollution sensors. EPA spells out the consortium's a five-year mission:

...to advance next generation air quality sensing technology and provide more mobile and less expensive air sensing capabilities for citizens, communities, air quality managers, businesses, and others interested in air quality issues.

Aclima was tapped to lead the consortium, partnering with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Chicago, and EPA to develop a new ultra-small sensor for detecting particulate matter.

Aclima has also been working under the radar with Google for several years, providing that company with a stationary network of 6,000 indoor air quality sensors for 21 of its offices globally.

Last June, Aclima snuck out from under stealth mode, announcing a mobile air pollution monitoring partnership with Google as well as members of the aforementioned consortium, helped along by a highly credentialed advisory board. The company describes its mission in somewhat more poetic terms than EPA's remit:

What if we could see the air around us? How many messages lie hidden in a passing breeze? Live Aware with Aclima. Our environmental sensor networks turn billions of data points into powerful insights -- making the invisible, visible.

In the words of Aclima CEO and co-founder Davida Herzl, the partnership with Google brings to life a "complete  system to map environmental quality in an entirely new way, enabling us to see how our buildings, communities and cities live and breathe.”

"It's hard to manage what is difficult to measure, especially when it comes to our environment, Herzl explained by email to TriplePundit. "We see a future where sensors help us understand what we're putting into the environment and what we're putting into our bodies. This new class of tools can provide a level playing field for making decisions. Now more than ever, we need to work as a global community to cap and reduce pollution that directly affects human health and long-term resilience."

With full Internet connectivity, the system provides for real time mapping and monitoring, scaling from the interior of individual buildings up to an entire city.

Mobile air pollution monitoring for California

TriplePundit caught up with Aclima last August, after Aclima pilot-tested its mobile air pollution sensors in Denver in a collaboration that drew NASA into the fold as well as EPA. Strapped to three Google cars for one month, the Aclima sensors collected approximately 150 million data points including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, methane, particulate matter including "black carbon" and volatile organic compounds. The data was also correlated with information from conventional, stationary EPA monitors.

In today's announcement at the 11th annual Clinton Global Initiative, Aclima has committed to an expanded mobile air quality monitoring effort, bringing the company closer to a future in which "hyper-local air quality will be as accessible as the weather."

The new initiative pairs Aclima sensors with Google Maps in at least three major urban centers in California, starting with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley regions. It's an ambitious rollout, and if it succeeds the payoff will be equally significant. According to Aclima, the aim is to put the system through its paces in a "robust testing ground" where the economic impacts of air pollution will come into foucs, especially regarding the public health costs of ozone and particulate matter leading to asthma.

Google Earth's manager for outreach, Karin Tuxen-Bettman, emphasized that the end goal is to make environmental data accessible to the general public as well as to planners and regulators:

...We hope this program not only empowers people to make more informed everyday decisions, but also incites dialog about how to make long-term improvements to air quality.

The California initiative will provide aggregated data on two platforms. One is Google Earth Engine, the geo-spatial analysis platform for Google Maps. The target users for this platform will be EPA scientists as well as experts with the Environmental Defense Fund.

The other platform consists of air quality maps overlaid on Google Earth and Google Maps, a format easily accessed and understood by the general public.

Air pollution: The Volkswagen connection

EPA has recognized that conventional air monitoring systems are inadequate for managing urban air pollution, and one immediate result of the Aclima - Google initiative will be improved management of air pollution from buildings and other facilities. The initiative will also help identify air pollution issues related to non-point sources, namely, vehicles.

A long term resolution for non-point sources depends on emissions regulation, and as the Volkswagen scandal demonstrates, the existing technology for auditing vehicle emissions can be -- and is -- easily circumvented by auto manufacturers.

As with stationary air quality monitoring, EPA has recognized that a leap in technology and process is required to ensure that vehicles perform as promised, and in a press conference last Friday the agency outlined its plans for taking its procedures to the next level.

TriplePundit will take a closer look at EPA's plans for Volkswagen and other vehicle manufacturers later this week, so stay tuned.

Image credit: Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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