IoT and Citizen Data: The First Step in Eliminating Air Pollution

September 19, 2016

Air pollution is a significant problem in many parts of the world. It’s not uncommon to see pictures of parts of China through a haze of smog. However the problem of air pollution is not limited to China. It’s cited that 6.5 million deaths per year can be attributed to air pollution according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), much greater than the number from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined.

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The impacts of air pollution can vary from city to city in the causes of pollution and the health impacts, but ultimately poor air quality reduces citizens’ life expectancy where ever they live. Air pollution is not limited to cities, many of the world’s poorest communities are heavily exposed to toxic fumes when cooking, or heating and lighting their homes.

The air quality data collected by the government is likely sampled from far, far away and then applied to you on a regional level — not very useful from the standpoint of trying to understand or change the local dynamics of pollution that affect you.

IoT technology, like that being developed by nexpaq, is playing a key role in measuring and mapping pollution levels, with sensors and wearables used to record not only measurements but physiological responses to them. Many of these tools are made accessible to citizen scientists to create pollution maps within cities and are an important tool in documenting and leveraging health and environmental data to inform public policy.

So here are some of the innovative technologists working hard in this space to make a difference, many of which would work well as modular devices:

Plume

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In March this year, Paris startup Plumelabs released a flock of racing pigeons through London wearing pollution-sensing backpacks for three days to monitor the city’s air pollution levels, particularly nitrogen dioxide and ozone gases — produced mainly by diesel vehicles — and reported the results on Twitter.

The campaign encourages London’s residents to join the “Air Patrol” by becoming beta testers for a wearable version of Plume Labs’ ultra-light air pollution sensing device. A crowdfunding campaign aims at recruiting 100 beta testers in London to map out live air pollutant levels across the city. These personal wearable sensors will eventually complement Plume Labs’ flagship product, the Plume Air Report, an urban weather forecast for air pollution that tracks air pollution levels in 300 cities and 40 countries thanks to open data.

The corresponding mobile app, utilizes artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to provide live pollution forecasts and advice on what to do to avoid over-exposure to environmental factors such as UV or air pollutants.

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It would be easy to image Plume’s air pollution monitor going modular, attached to a phone, a wearable attached to a pet’s collar or a baby’s pram-all opportunities to get air pollution measurements at a lower level than flying pigeon height.

Airly

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Poland-based startup Airly is working on hardware that measures pollution (e.g. dust sensors, forest fires detectors, traffic management modules, water quality monitoring) to enable companies to deliver global solutions for Smart Cities. Their idea originated due to the founders’ experiences the bad air of Krakow, considered the most polluted city in Europe due to coal emissions.

It’s a made-to-order product that may be in its early days — but instead of using Wi-Fi or GSM, they rely on the latest technology- LoRa- to power their sensor technology. They’re collaborating with Cisco to include environmental health as a just one of the data readings made possible in smart city technologies being made available to city governments. This startup is definitely one to watch.

iSPEX

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The founders of iSPEX have been pivotal in leading the fight against climate change through a national experiment in the Netherlands to measure aerosols with a spectropolarimetric add-on to their smartphones.

iSPEX-EU distributed small devices that can be attached to smartphones to turn them into optical sensors. These add-ons are “spectropolarimeters” that combined with the phone’s camera, sensors, computing and communications capabilities can be used to measure tiny particles in our atmosphere.

According to the researchers: “These results are even more accurate than we had hoped, and give rise to further research and development. We are currently investigating to what extent we can extract more information about atmospheric particles from the iSPEX data, like their sizes and compositions”

Air Quality Egg

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Air Quality Egg is a community-led air quality sensing network that was developed by a community effort, born out of groups from the Internet of Things Meetups in NYC and Amsterdam. It’s designed to allow community members to collect high resolution readings of NO2 and CO concentrations outside of their home-two gases that are the most indicative elements related to urban air pollution that are senseable by inexpensive, DIY sensors.

The device consists of a sensor system to plug into the wall outside of your home that communicates wirelessly to the egg-shaped base station inside, which transmits the data to the internet. The egg also contains the user buttons and lights.

Users can register their egg at Air Quality Egg and their data is automatically mapped, creating a real-time source for local, regional and even global air quality.

TreeHouse Wifi

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Whilst monitoring air quality is one part of the issue, providing an impetus for social change is another challenge. Amsterdam based start-up TreeWiFi are building birdhouses that measure air pollution and make the levels of pollution visible through an LED status light. When their server detects an improvement in air quality, it allows the birdhouse to share it’s internet connection with everyone in the street. Users that connect to the network get tips & tricks on how to improve air quality locally before going online. It’s an innovative way to tackle a problem where residential engagement can be difficult.

Clearly monitoring air pollution is only a a single step in solving the problem of poor air quality. However empowering individuals and cities to determine real time measurements is imperative in building a case into the health and environmental effects of pollution. As technology gets smaller and smarter, air quality devices can be easily modularized for platforms, like nexpaq, and more refined and suit a range of purposes, replacing the larger more generalized devices.

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