UK communities deserve real-time pollution monitoring (and the tech exists)

January 31, 2017

“Hey Alexa, what’s the cleanest route to work?”
Every morning I wake up and check my phone in search of a route to work which keeps me sane. There’s always something: a rail strike, signal failures, gridlocked roads. Another news article on the poor air quality in London– stay indoors today, avoid walking along busy roads. Sometimes it seems like all that’s left to do is stick on our air purifiers and never leave the house.

Monitoring neighbourhood air quality in real-time
Currently, our travel apps don’t account for pollution. Where is the tick-box on my app for “fastest + cleanest route to work”? If the information were available, I would be happy to change my daily behaviour in order to reduce my commute time, and give my lungs the freshest air possible. With real-time data on air quality in my area, I can easily select a better and cleaner route to work. The technology’s available: all it takes is strategically placed wireless sensors continuously measuring air quality and pollution.

Pollution can change from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute and even road to road. It’s constantly evolving just like our transport system. Time is precious, but so is our health. Up to date data can play a crucial role in helping us make the most effective choices for health and efficiency alike.

London’s pollution challenge
The high courts made it clear to the UK government they can do better in tackle the increasing battle against pollution. We have here in London a vocal mayor introducing a ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone), increased parking costs for diesel cars, and now an audit of the top 50 most polluted schools. I’m debating if these will work or not, though reading the conclusion of the latest Mayor’s Air Quality Fund report, does raises concerns that these policy ideas are somewhat lukewarm. After reading the report had spent millions on new initiatives, it concludes they were unable to quantify actual the emission reduction.

“A key issue was quantifying the emissions reductions from projects, which is always difficult with air quality projects”

London has around 100 real-time pollution monitoring sensor sites, that is only on average 3 per borough. There is over 2,300 schools and 55,000 roads in London. For one of the leading, most forward thinking and innovative cities in the world, I was very surprised to discover this. A recently published article by UK health watchdog suggested that city trees, popularly thought to remove pollutants and improve urban life, may also increase the amount of foul air that people breathe. The question is: do we really understand the pollution issue at heart, are we making informed or data starved decisions?

The sensory data opportunity
Let’s take a step back before we spend millions on audits and penalise or fine those who are probably not the real culprits. There is clearly an opportunity to help us all make data-driven decisions not only on our investments, but also in our communities — for example on our daily journeys to work. This starts with more real-time pollution monitoring, investment to improve the lowly ratio of 100 sensors to 55,000 roads, or at the very least protect and focus on the most vulnerable: the children.

Data for a common cause
With the advancement in wireless sensor technology and falling costs to implement, there is a clear case for deploying pollution monitoring sensors in surrounding roads of all our schools. One sensor in every school would be a start, enabling us all to experiment and test new initiatives effectively. Imagine what we could do with the information gathered if we put an NO2 sensor on every street in London. This new data– collected on each road–can now be stored easily on cloud infrastructure, open sourced for all to use in the public domain. Open source is proven to drive innovation, it allows for collaboration on a grand scale, no need to wait for paid scientists: we can all experiment, we can all learn and in turn, make smart decisions.

There is no monopoly of information and even less so when it comes to the threats of pollution. We talk about the lasting economic impacts that can arise from unaffordable housing or the uncertainty of Brexit though the pollution could be the real elephant in the room. The burden doesn’t lie with the government, though they have the ability to empower us all. With access to this data, small behaviour changes from all stakeholders can have a compounding, profound and lasting effect.


Antony Yousefian, 30MHz UK

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