Hyper-local mapping using sensors could help cities tackle air pollution

A new approach to measuring air quality reveals pollution patterns at far greater detail than ever before, and could help cities identify pollution hotspots and take steps to address the problem.

Two Google Street View mapping cars equipped with a sensor system from environmental sensors company Aclima were used to map an area of 78 square miles in Oakland, California, collecting one of the largest data sets of air pollution ever measured of single city streets. Over the course of a year the cars made three million unique measurements while driving more than 14,000 miles.

The project was led by researchers from the US-based Environmental Defense Fund and the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, together with Google Earth Outreach. The findings have been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

According to the partners, this new technique maps urban air pollution at 100,000 times greater spatial resolution than is possible with traditional government air quality monitors.

The data was used to produce new, interactive maps that allow regulators and residents alike to see where elevated concentrations of dangerous air pollutants – including black carbon, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide – are located in certain sections of West and East Oakland. Higher concentrations of these contaminants, typically a result of vehicle emissions, have been linked to heart disease, stroke and asthma.

“Air pollution is largely an invisible threat, one that poses especially disproportionate risks in lower-income areas like West Oakland. This new method allows us to visualise the data so communities and policymakers can identify the sources of harmful pollution and take action to improve safety and health,” explained Steven Hamburg, EDF chief scientist.

The maps could also help citizens make more informed decisions.

“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?” said Cockrell School of Engineering Assistant Professor Joshua Apte, lead author of the study. “This hyper-local information about consistent air quality can be really useful for people, especially those who are vulnerable because of age or health condition.”

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