This new technology could dictate where people walk, ride bikes, go to school, and so much more.
When you think of the leading cause of death in the world, what is it that comes to mind first? Perhaps it’s heart disease, famine, war, terrorism, or AIDS, but there’s something much more pressing than all of these issues that cause premature deaths of approximately seven million people worldwide annually: Air Pollution. Air pollution has been linked to heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, and many other life-threatening illnesses that take the lives of millions of people every year and it is relatively unaddressed in many cities and nations throughout the world.
Google has joined the ranks of global companies doing their part to combat pollution and help the environment by adding a sensor to some of their Google Street View cars, which typically collect maps of streets and photos. The company recently partnered with Aclima, who built the pollution-sensing equipment that was added to the cars, and the pair have been testing out the equipment and its applications for the past few years.
“These are sampling gases like ozone, NO, NO2, CO2, methane,” said Melissa Lunden, the chief scientist with Aclima, as she pointed at parts of a map Google created while driving. “You see the traffic, you see the streets, you can see the air pollution. That data is uploaded to the internet in real time.”
The sensor devices, or “mini-mobile labs” as Aclima CEO Davida Herzl calls them, fit in the back of the Google cars and collect air samples through a hole in one of the car windows. A series of tubes that look like a jumbo straw then capture the air sample while the cars also track temperature and wind flow with the small anemometers attached to them.
The technology has officially been launched in Oakland, CA, but the cars have been working in this area for at least the last year and they are currently covering 78 square miles. The cars collect readings every 100 feet or so, which produces extremely detailed maps of the pollution levels, especially when compared to cities that have air quality monitors. The monitors are usually placed every 100 to 200 square miles. The benefit of collecting readings over a long period of time is that you can tell where the areas with poor air quality at all times are, and make an effort to avoid them. It’s Google’s hope that air pollution information can be made as easily available as current traffic in the maps.
“You could also take this kind of data and give a biking route or a walking route or a route to school, where you minimize your exposure to pollutants,” Lunden said.
Joshua Apte, an assistant professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering and lead author of a that was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, has even more exciting ideas about the application of these readings and also explained the results to Tech Radar.
“Air pollution varies very finely in space, and we can’t capture that variation with other existing measurement techniques,” Apte said. “Using our approach and analysis techniques, we can now visualize air pollution with incredible detail. This kind of information could transform our understanding of the sources and impacts of air pollution.”
One of the surprising finds that researchers discovered was the great variation of hotspots for highly polluted air throughout the city and how very clean areas could be right down the street. Apte said that some city blocks were six times more polluted on one end than they were on the other, making location crucial for planning outdoor walks, jogs, bike rides, and much more.
“You could use this information when you’re picking a school for your kids. Is there a school with a playground that might have better air quality because your kid has asthma?” Apte said. “This hyper-local information about consistent can be really useful for people, especially those who are vulnerable because of age or health condition.”
Steve Hamburg is the chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped pay for the pollution mapping project and partnered with Google last year to start tracking methane pollution from pipelines. Hamburg stressed that access to this information will be crucial in urging local government to fix the problem of air pollution, which will put pressure on state and federal government agencies. This project has the power to effect huge amounts of change, and Google is just getting started.