linked to pollution
Air quality is a major public health issue. According to a report published in the peer-reviewed general medical journal The Lancet on 20 October, polluted air is the cause of 6.5 million deaths worldwide annually. Meanwhile an OECD report informs us that medical costs linked to pollution amounted to $21 billion for 2015 alone and forecasts that they are likely to rise again significantly. And air quality is not only an issue that affects countries notorious for pollution, such as China. In Denmark, for instance, the number of residents of the capital, Copenhagen, dying annually from the consequences of pollution is estimated at 500. The municipal authorities are now measuring air quality in real time, in order to find a solution to the problem. Having the information, and being able to report on it is an important step but you still need to act. So how are smart cities dealing with this problem? And how might City Hall collaborate with startup companies working in this field? They can set targets and draw up strategies which will certainly improve the situation in the long term. But in the meantime, what can city residents do in their own sphere? A number of tech startupers, some of whom L’Atelier talked to at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2017 event held in San Francisco in September and also at the latest HAX (hardware) accelerator DemoDay, also in San Francisco, have been developing solutions.
Startups helping city-dwellers to protect themselves from pollution
Co-founder & CEO of Sensio AIR
International organisations still haven’t agreed on a threshold for each pollutant, beyond which the air is considered bad for your health
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, close to 25 million people in the United States are asthmatic. Moreover, a number of studies show that not only can pollution impact very negatively on the respiratory condition of an asthmatic person but it can also bring on asthma in a person who has hitherto been in good health. In order to avoid suffering the symptoms of asthma, the best thing you can do is to breathe pure, clean air.
This is the goal of London-based Sensio AIR. Co-founder and CEO Cyrille Najjar, whom L’Atelier met up with at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017, explained that his app and device are designed for “people who would like to know the level of air quality in their city and also in their home”. But what index should you refer to in order to find out exactly what you are breathing? Air quality assessments are still highly subjective. Points out Cyrille Najjar: “International organisations still haven’t agreed on a threshold for each pollutant, beyond which the air is considered bad for your health. Each country has its own air quality index, and politics plays a major role in deciding thresholds. The scientific community is also still unsure whether long-term, moderate exposure to a pollutant is more dangerous than a short but extreme exposure.”
Against this background, Sensio AIR decided to go for the index most likely to ensure protection for citizens. The London-based startup has a “huge network of sensors” deployed in houses and around the city, and which are also intended for installation in “road vehicles, trains, public buildings, aircraft hangars, and so on,” adds Najjar. This is an excellent way to find out and report accurately on pollution levels and the presence of harmful substances in the air at any given point so as to advise on action and prevention. “We’ll be able to find out the reasons and tell users to be careful to open the windows today, use a dehumidifier etc.,” he foresees. In fact, the main focus of Sensio Air is to help prevent allergies and respiratory ailments. Asthma and allergy sufferers can “register their symptoms on the app. The more often they do so, the more capable [Sensio AIR] will be of predicting in advance when the symptoms are likely to return,” explains Cyrille Najjar.
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Plume Labs is on a very similar mission. Also headquartered in London, the company has developed an app called Air Report, which is intended to help users avoid pollution peak-periods. The idea is that if we cannot improve the air we breathe, we must learn to adapt our activities to the prevailing level of air pollution. In order to work out when you should or should not go jogging or take the kids to the park, you can check on the ambient air pollution at the present moment or during the coming hours just as you would check on the weather forecast. And to enable people to have the most accurate picture possible of what is happening inside the home as well, Plume Labs has now launched a portable sensor called Flow, a sort of wearable device that attaches conveniently to a bag.
In similar vein, the young French tech company Wair, which presented its work at CES 2017, has come up with a scarf that has an integrated pollution mask to enable pedestrians or two-wheeled road users to protect themselves from harmful airborne substances. All these inventions are encouraging people to change their habits so as to breathe more healthily. Nevertheless, in reality their scope is rather limited. While it is true that sensors and devices do have the merit of raising individual awareness of the problems, they certainly cannot all be solved at individual level. Only cities that take a ‘smart’ approach to this issue will be able to have a significant impact on air quality.
In the long run, human health is linked to the health of the Smart City
are proactively measuring air quality
Smart cities are applying a range of different strategies to improve their air quality. In Copenhagen, connected sensors deployed by CPH Sense provide real-time information on pollution levels. An equivalent system exists in many other cities, including San Francisco, where the state-wide AirNow website is up and running. Clarity, a startup that graduated from the HAX accelerator, points out that the number of cities taking active steps to measure air quality has nearly tripled in six years, from 1,100 to 3,000. Does this mean people are now waking up to the problem?
In the city of Oakland, to the north of the San Francisco Bay Area, a number of public and private players have been working together in an effort to better understand the problems of air pollution. In June researchers at the University of Texas in Austin, Google Earth Outreach teams and experts from the Environmental Defense Fund published the results of their collaboration with Aclima, a San Francisco-based startup that delivers environmental intelligence through sensor networks. Embedded into Google Street View cars for a period of one year, the Aclima sensor systems showed how far air quality could vary from one city block to another. This type of study demonstrates the need to measure air quality as locally as possible. And this is where fledgling companies such as Clarity Movement Co can help. Its dense sensor network enables it to capture real-time air quality data, which is then directly uploaded into the Cloud. “A second layer of machine learning algorithms is then applied to further refine the data quality through cross-analysis with government reference stations and other local environmental parameters,” explains Meiling Gao, a PhD in Environmental Health Sciences who works as Chief Operating Officer at Clarity.
Some cities have adjusted their urban planning in order to reduce sources of ad hoc pollution and protect those sensitive to air pollution.
"Cities often have stations which monitor air quality; the advantage here is that they use standard, highly accurate methods. However, they’re very burdensome, including as regards maintenance, so there aren’t many of them,” reveals Cyrille Najjar, pointing out that the UK only has 150 for the entire country. Moreover, “they’re frequently installed on top of buildings or away from densely populated areas,” underlines Meiling Gao. However, many startup companies have developed a wide range of sensors, often low cost and easy to maintain, which can therefore be used to supplement those installed by city authorities, enabling “an overall view of a city’s air quality,” argues the Sensio AIR CEO.
His company is in fact well-placed to send an alert to the authorities at a particular locality when an unusual situation or a major air problem arises, and make recommendations. “Some cities, for instance, having understood the situation, have then adjusted their urban planning in order to reduce sources of ad hoc pollution,” says Najjar, pointing out: “Traffic lights are a huge source of pollution because this is the point where people re-start their engines. So some have been moved and the road configuration changed so as to protect people most sensitive to air pollution – young children, the ill, the elderly and so on. Setting up a good public transport service along polluted roads has also resulted in a drastic reduction in pollution levels.” Such recommendations might seem to be nothing more than common sense. Nevertheless, city authorities do not always find it easy to put them into practice and frequently run into obstacles when trying to do so.
City dwellers, public and private players: air quality must be everyone’s business
PhD in Environmental Health Sciences; Chief Operating Officer at Clarity Movement Co.
Air quality information should be as common as time, temperature or traffic warnings.
One of the difficulties here is “the inherently multi-sector nature” of monitoring air quality, explains Meiling Gao, pointing out: “The Environmental Protection Agencies that have the regulatory authority to monitor air quality don’t always have the authority to implement policies that can reduce emissions such as vehicle control restrictions in certain city zones or converting municipal fleets to electric vehicles. Therefore, all these stakeholders – environment, energy, planning and transportation – must sit at the table together to solve the problem.” Moreover, these agencies need to have better quality data available to them if they are going to take the right decisions. “Air pollution problems are complex and driven by different emission sources, the physical environment, climates, and human behaviours. Decision-makers must therefore have localised data to determine the particular variables influencing the air quality, and monitor the effectiveness of their policies in real-time to see what works and what doesn’t,” explains the Clarity COO.
Another fundamental Smart City mission is to raise awareness of key issues among the population, engage with citizens and make them realise that their behaviour can help to bring about real change. Meiling Gao argues that “air quality information should be as common as time, temperature, or traffic warnings displayed to the public.” Moreover, cities need to have dense sensor networks in place that will enable the local authorities “to make available to the public air quality information about the spaces that people commonly inhabit – schools, parks, public squares, commercial areas – that is localised and relevant,” she underlines.
On the other hand, ordinary citizens also have a role to play in pushing Smart City authorities to live up to their responsibilities. “Citizens can get involved by first educating themselves on the health risks associated with air pollution and supporting policies that will improve air quality. Initiatives like investments into public transit, green spaces and bike lanes represent the direction we want cities to move towards in terms of creating sustainable and healthy cities. Moreover, increased measurement and more data are critical to quantifying the impacts of a specific policy on air quality,” stresses Meiling Gao.
Air purification a feasible solution?
There remains one other means of improving the air we breathe. If the air is polluted, why not filter or purify it? While waiting for long-term policies to take effect, this might work as a radical, instantaneous solution, but it would not realistically be feasible on anything except a very small scale. Nevertheless, some tech startups, including Molekule and Arcadya are already offering a product designed to improve air quality inside homes where, after all, people are supposed to spend most of their time. And when they are outside, Londoners might go down to Bird Street, where AirLabs has set up a CleanAir park bench that sucks in ambient air and blows out purified air. Such approaches as these might be “viable short-term solutions until we can address air pollution at the sources they are emitted from,” reckons Meiling Gao – a polite way of saying that these are little more than band-aids applied to a serious wound.While measuring air quality might seem of secondary importance as long as everything is going fine, such pro-active initiatives show their true value when things take a turn for the worse. Since the recent forest fires in California seriously affected air quality in Silicon Valley, more and more people have been seeking information on the current situation and the possible consequences for health and way of life and even more are likely to take an interest in the subject going forward. Let’s hope this will motivate some of the leading brains in the Bay area to set up new GreenTech firms with a mission to combat air pollution. Hope is also coming from cutting-edge techniques in related fields, including recent news of a power plant in Iceland that is now equipped to capture CO2 from the air and store it in local rock formations.