Google, Aclima, Environmental Defense Fund, and UT Austin Announce Results of Breakthrough Study Mapping Hyperlocal Air Quality
SAN FRANCISCO (June 5, 2017) – Today, Google Earth Outreach, Aclima, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and engineering researchers at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) published results of a year-long mobile mapping campaign to measure hyperlocal air pollution in Oakland, CA. This breakthrough research is featured in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Science & Technology, and is the first set of findings from Google and Aclima about street-level air quality in California communities.
High-Resolution Air Pollution Mapping with Google Street View Cars: Exploiting Big Data shows that air pollution is hyperlocal, varying block by-block across urban airsheds. Two Google Street View (SV) vehicles equipped with Aclima’s mobile sensing platform measured black carbon particles (BC), nitrogen oxide, and nitrogen dioxide between May 2015 and May 2016, collecting 2.7 million data points over 14,000 miles and 150 days.
This is one of the largest data sets of urban air pollution ever assembled. The study demonstrates the value of Aclima’s highly scalable approach to cost-effective, high-resolution air quality measurement to identify local pollution hotspots and better understand impacts on human health and the environment. In the coming months, Aclima and Google plan to release more maps and insights from Los Angeles, the Central Valley, and San Francisco Bay Area conducted in 2016.
“At a time when millions of people are living in cities with poor air quality, mapping street-level pollution, block-by-block in real-time, provides an unprecedented tool for improving human and planetary health,” said Melissa Lunden, Chief Scientist at Aclima. “We’re incredibly proud of this work with Google, EDF, and UT Austin to advance a deeper understanding of hyperlocal urban air pollution. The Aclima sensing platform is a scalable solution to address major air quality monitoring gaps worldwide.”
“Air pollution is largely an invisible threat, one that poses especially devastating risks in lower-income areas like West Oakland,” said Steven Hamburg, EDF Chief Scientist. “This new method allows us to visualize the data so communities and policymakers can identify the sources of harmful pollution and take action to improve safety and health.”
“Google likes big challenges,” said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Program Manager for Google Earth Outreach and lead for the air quality project at Google, “the mapping of air pollution, raising awareness of the problem, and enabling action to solve it – that’s a big challenge and we’re excited to play a part in it.”
“The new mobile technology allows us to measure pollution levels block-by-block where people actually breathe the air – at street level,” said Joshua Apte, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. “Combined with data from stationary monitors, this new technique will help policymakers and the public understand where people are at greatest risk of breathing unhealthy air, enabling them to make smarter choices about how to limit pollution.”
What We Found
According to the World Health Organization, 92% of people worldwide breathe unhealthy air, yet ambient pollution measurements are limited. Even when available, ambient monitoring does not provide information on the hyperlocality of pollution concentrations. This study reports on Aclima’s scalable new measurement technique for mapping air pollution at as much as 100,000 times greater spatial resolution than is possible with current regulatory monitors. Our measurements reveal that urban air pollution is surprisingly more variable than previously appreciated, with air quality changing over the course of a city block. Conventional fixed-site measurements provide regional snapshots of air quality, but local variation is known to profoundly impact public health and environmental equity.
How We Did It
Researchers at UT Austin, EDF, and Aclima designed the daily driving plan for cars to ensure that each neighborhood was systematically sampled at different times of the day, week, and year. The cars repeatedly measured pollution on every street and highway within a 30 square kilometer area of Oakland. Cars drove in the flow of traffic at normal speeds. Over the course of a year, the team sampled each road in this area an average of 30 times.
The Aclima platform in the cars integrates sensing hardware, data management and computation, quality control, and visualization functions, facilitating extensive, routine measurements. The system continuously streams data to Aclima’s cloud-based data processing and storage system where data is aggregated and analyzed. In addition to air quality measurement, the mobile platform digitizes and prepares each air-sample for geospatial visualization through an on-board data management system. An extensive network management system enables scientists and engineers at UT Austin and Aclima to monitor conditions in real-time.
Scaling This Effort
Routine availability of high-resolution air quality data in all major cities could have transformative implications for environmental management, air pollution and health, science and civic engagement, and policy. By highlighting localized pollution hotspots, these data may identify new opportunities for pollution control. Street-level air quality data can complement, challenge, and validate other diverse air quality datasets, including regulatory monitoring data, chemical transport model outputs, land-use regression predictions, and remotely-sensed observations.
Through combination with personal GPS data on smartphone applications, rich ‘personal exposure analytics’ become possible, which could enhance epidemiological studies and inform personal behavior – much as real-time traffic data now informs individual driving patterns. Broader societal consequences of the public awareness enabled by spatially extensive monitoring and high-resolution pollution maps might include shifts in urban land-use decisions, regulatory actions, and in the political economy of environmental “riskscapes.”
Oakland is home to half a million people of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. West Oakland children younger than five years old are hospitalized for asthma twice as often as any other population in Alameda county. A mix of pollution from several major interstates, the fifth busiest port in the country, and industrial and Superfund sites affect the local environment and health of residents. New methods to measure how air pollution concentrations vary within cities and communities can provide insights applicable to atmospheric science, urban planning, pollution mitigation, environmental justice, and public awareness. The region also represents a unique opportunity to put environmental data to work. With progressive local leadership and a galvanized community, Oakland is poised to seek solutions to a number of social justice concerns affecting quality of life and improving city resiliency in service of a thriving city for all.
The State of Air Monitoring
States are required to monitor and control levels of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. To assess if air quality is meeting – or exceeding – public health standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relies on monitoring stations across the country delivering regional snapshots of air quality. The fixed monitoring network is designed for air quality regulation, but doesn’t give a detailed picture of a community or neighborhood such that people can get a real sense of what air pollution is in their immediate surroundings. Highly-localized data about emissions contributing to climate change is even more limited. Scientists fill in knowledge gaps using predictive models using this limited available data. Aclima’s mobile sensing platform on Street View cars complements existing stationary air measurement efforts, like those in Oakland, by introducing a new layer of environmental data about air pollution at the street level.
Aclima and Google’s Partnership
In 2011, Aclima and Google began working together to characterize the indoor environment, producing one of the largest data sets for the indoor environment in the world. The network spans 21 Google offices around the globe and processes 500 million data points daily about indoor environmental quality. Starting in 2014, Aclima and Google Earth Outreach partnered to map air quality across cities by integrating Aclima’s sensing platform on Google Street View cars. To date, we’ve collected more than 80,000 miles and millions of environmental data points about some of the largest metropolitan areas in California. Together, Google and Aclima are bringing a new class of tools to transform how we manage natural resources.
Aclima delivers environmental intelligence through sensor networks to improve human health and planetary health. We combine leading-edge sensing technology, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence to take the real-time pulse of the invisible world around us. Translating real-time data into actionable insights, Aclima transforms how we understand and manage our buildings, cities, and industries to create a more resilient, healthy, and thriving world. Learn more at aclima.io.