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Soon smartphones could work as mobile air quality sensors - but probably best avoided by smokers! Photo: Ed Yourdon via Flickr, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Soon smartphones could work as mobile air quality sensors - but probably best avoided by smokers! Photo: Ed Yourdon via Flickr, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
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Information to the people! The coming air quality revolution

Prashant Kumar

15th January 2015

Air quality across the UK is currently monitored by just a few hundred fixed stations, writes Prashant Kumar. That leaves most of us ignorant about the pollution we are breathing. But tiny air quality sensors in our mobile phones could soon create a network of millions of data points - and spur much needed official action to clean our air.

Where the facts show our health is at risk, governments will no longer be able to hide behind smokescreens, but will have to act on the data which is at all our fingertips.

It's no surprise that dirty air kills. In fact, air pollution was recently placed in the top ten health risks faced by human beings globally.

In the UK high concentrations of polluting particles cost health services around £20 billion per year. The country's Environmental Audit Committee recently described air pollution as a "public health crisis".

Despite this very real, very widespread risk, the quality of air we breathe doesn't seem to attract the same level of concern that health crises such as obesity or smoking do. But this is a universal risk that impacts us in every breath we take.

When such a fundamental human resource is at risk, we cannot afford to be ambivalent. We should invest in information technology that will enable smarter decisions, better planning and greener cities.

It's not enough to simply try to encourage improved individual behaviour. Air pollution, monitoring and planning needs national and international investment and attention.

Smart thinking

The evidence is clear. At present, many of the world's cities are unable to comply with air pollution standards, in many cases far exceeding them and resulting in millions of premature deaths.

Technology companies, universities and start-ups across the world are working to bring futuristic smart cities to life. Whether it's automatic transportation infrastructure or digital government systems, this concept is spawning great ideas to improve our lives through the use of data and technology.

But in the race to transform our cities, we need to ensure these smart systems enable our smarter lives to be longer lives, and by putting data to use we can help combat the ill-effects of bad air.

It all starts with data. Scientists of course love data, but so do the public when they can discern real benefits from its results. There are a number of air monitoring systems in place in the UK already, such as Defra's Automatic Urban and Rural Network of over 175 monitoring sites across the UK. This is an example of a traditional fixed monitoring station.

Likewise, several air pollution monitoring stations are run in the US under the umbrella of US Environmental Protection Agency to maintain and preserve the quality of the nation's air.

Unfortunately these kinds of stations are expensive to install and maintain, which rather defeats the purpose of supposedly sustainable smart infrastructure. Also, such systems often only provide a snapshot of a small number of specific locations and miss many pollution hotspots within city environments.

The answer - a widespread, low cost sensing network

However, there are already projects that show the potential for small, low-cost air sensing networks and demonstrate how the public could tap into this data to make a real impact on individual lives.

Air Quality Egg is a community-led air quality sensing network for urban air pollution, driven by inexpensive, DIY sensors. Similarly, Airtext provides daily forecasts of air quality in London. Currently several sensors are deployed at Heathrow airport.

On a small-scale these allow the public to make informed health decisions by avoiding areas of high pollution. Our latest work has looked at the future of low-cost sensing for managing air pollution in cities and how agencies can benefit from such inexpensive monitoring alternatives.

This research is an ongoing interest, and the future of such sensing systems is far from defined. A smart system of low cost sensing, supplying open access data could indeed happen in coming years but there are no certain answers as to when this might happen.

This is for several reasons. The cost of such systems should be relatively cheap as developments bring such sensors below the £100 mark. There has been a significant advance in the nanotechnology that is helping to make these sensors robust and reliable, and their size is shrinking.

Currently smart phones are used for many such purposes, though mainly using apps that tells user about the air quality. There could be time when these sensors are embedded within smart phones, enabling them to collect the air pollution data and act as mobile monitoring stations.

But perhaps the greatest challenge lies in the data itself. One of the largest challenges is the relatively expensive analysis and interpretation of the data collected - as the cost of this activity is likely to easily exceed the cost of the sensors themselves.

There is also a question of who will fund this analysis given the broad spectrum of bodies interested in the data's outcome - the public, research agencies, regulatory authorities - or someone else?

Whatever the answer to these questions - and these are questions our team are working to answer - quite simply, the expansion of data projects such as these could save lives.

Information to the people!

The UK's Environmental Audit Committee has argued for schools, hospitals and care homes to be built away from pollution hotspots.

I would agree, and take this further, giving the general public open and accurate data on how their own homes are affected by air pollution, based on a smart system of low-cost monitoring.

This not only gives the option for people to consider where to live, but also provides individual impetus for understanding and acting on potentially polluting behaviour.

More widely this kind of open data gives governments a reason to act. Smart cities also mean smart citizens, involved and in-touch with the facts.

Where the facts show our health is at risk, governments will no longer be able to hide behind smokescreens, but will have to act on the data which is at all our fingertips.



Prashant Kumar is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Surrey, UK. His research is focused on three key areas: airborne nano / ultrafine particles and aerosols, urban air quality, and wind engineering. Further details on his webpage.

This article is an expanded version of one originally published on The Conversation.

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