In the Battle Against Air Pollution, Big Data is Winning

Technology is rising to the challenge of air pollution, with cloud computing and data analytics-based solutions helping to make our cities healthier places to live

How clean is the air you breathe? Do you even know? As a city infrastructure grows, so pollutants increase – carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone, particulates, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead. You probably don’t even know that you’re breathing them in.

Don’t underestimate the danger. A study [1] by the World Health Organisation in 2016 claimed that 98 per cent of densely populated cities in economically underdeveloped countries are exposed to the highest levels of urban air pollution. This increases the risk of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and pulmonary/acute respiratory diseases, such as asthma.

In some major world cities, air pollution face masks have become a regular feature.

Across the EU, poor air quality contributes to an estimated 467,000 premature deaths per year [2], with 40,000 of those in the UK [3]. And if you think it’s just the big cities that suffer from high levels of pollution, think again. Places like Scunthorpe, Eastbourne and Oxford all appeared on the WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database (2016).[4]

The battle against air pollution will be won with data. As sensor technology becomes ever more sophisticated, it’s now possible to gather up detailed information about air quality and its potential impact on a city-by-city, street-by-street basis. Using modern data analytics to make sense of the readings obtained, pollutant levels can be assessed in real-time and even modelled for the future. 

Future Cities Catapult is leading the charge in this area. This UK government-backed technology and innovation centre has teamed up with the Intel Collaborative Research Institute (which includes Intel Laboratories, UCL and Imperial College), The Royal Parks, the London Borough of Enfield, ScienceScope and City Insights, to create the Sensing London project.

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Sensor data doesn’t just show where the most polluted areas are, but where to find the cleanest air.

The idea behind the project is to collect and use real-life city data “to assess the impact that cities themselves have on human health, wellbeing and the natural environment.”

As Scott Cain, Chief Business Officer at Future Cities Catapult explains: 

“Relatively early on, we recognised the increasing significance of air quality as a challenge facing many of the world’s cities. And because of its wider prominence with the public and media, we felt it was something that we needed to do something about on a moral level – people are dying in their tens of thousands every year due to poor air quality.”

To assess air quality in London, the Sensing London project established five ‘living laboratories’ in Hyde Park, Brixton, Enfield, Elephant and Castle and Tower Bridge. Intel®-based sensors were deployed in these all-weather boxes to measure local air quality and human activity.

Tower Bridge was an ideal place to monitor air pollution due to heavy traffic flow.

Tower Bridge often suffers with cars stuck in queues of traffic for long periods with their engines running. Sensors were therefore set up over Tower Bridge, with others mounted on lamp posts above and around the bridge. The project set out to measure air quality, analyse it remotely, and then see if it could be improved. To encourage change on and around Tower Bridge, the project team set up electronic signs to remind people to turn off their engines when they were stationary.

Some of the other sensors used in the project were sited around schools. This is where the Brixton living lab came into play.

The idea behind the project is to use real-life city data to assess the impact on human health, wellbeing and the natural environment

“We asked: where do people care about air quality? The answer,” says Scott Cain, “is around schools because they are dropping off their kids. So, one of the areas we were seeking to test was around Brixton, and [we wanted to] work out how you can discourage parents from driving to drop off their kids and pick them up from school.

“There is evidence to suggest that children’s lungs grow to about 80% of their capacity through being exposed to continually red levels of air quality. It’s not necessarily widely understood that poor air quality is particularly bad for children.”

Once the data is captured by the living laboratories, scientists can then analyse the information and produce reports on the impact of polluted air on London’s population. This approach isn’t just to highlight the poor air quality in our cities. It’s also an opportunity to convince manufacturers and entrepreneurs that this could be a potential revenue stream, especially if they can develop a product that can help address the problem.

Intel and Bosch have teamed up to do exactly this, and have recently created a system that enables real-time analysis of ambient air pollution.

The Intel®-based Bosch Air Quality Micro Climate Monitoring System (MCMS) uses sensors and software to rapidly measure air quality parameters, which then provide city councils with meaningful data and insight.

The Intel-based Bosch Air Quality Micro Climate Monitoring System (MCMS) measures a variety of air quality parameters.

The system works by producing microclimatic data measurements for EPA ‘criteria pollutants’. This includes particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone. It also provides environmental parameter measurements of temperature, relative humidity, light, sound and pressure – and sensors can be adjusted with over-the-air calibration.

Install these sensors around a city and they enable an operations centre to monitor ambient air pollution in real-time. It’s data that can be used to send out air quality reports, highlight poor traffic flow in congested areas, or provide fitness recommendations based on air quality.

The ability to monitor and analyse the quality of air is crucial for any city that hopes to be ‘smart’. It can help provide a foundation for cleaner air policies in concentrated urban centres and, as the technology becomes cheaper and more powerful, cloud computing and data analytics-based solutions can help make them healthier places for us all to live.

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