How healthy is it to breathe in your neighborhood?

EPA’s website allows you to search air by zip code, but what if it was as easy to assess air quality, block by block, as it is to find grocery stores? An experimental collaboration between Google and Aclima, a tech company that specializes in networking environmental sensors, has big dreams of doing just that.

“It’s like a human body,” said Davida Herzl, Aclima’s CEO, when I talked to her recently. “When they let you into the hospital, they take your vital signs, try to treat you, and keep watching them to see if they are helping. For the first time, we’ll be able to take the vital signs of our environment.”

Aclima hooks up huge numbers of different sensors — some cheap, some expensive. Then it sifts through the enormous amount of data they generate, looking for patterns, as well as potential breaks in the network. Is a sensor broken? Are local weather patterns interfering with the data? With a resilient enough network, sensors can continue producing good data even in less-than-ideal conditions. And it can notice details that a simpler system might not, like how the air quality in the blocks closest to the freeway changes from hour to hour, and block to block.

The first large network Aclima built was for Google. Starting in 2011, Aclima began installing what are now 6,000 air quality sensors in Google’s offices around the world – 21 buildings, on four continents. In this case, Aclima was processing half a billion data points a day, looking for patterns and anomalies in the weather inside Google.

Last summer, the company spent a month driving three Google Street View cars through Denver, Colo. Aclima is in the second year of a five-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the EPA, where the two organizations work to build low-cost portable sensors to detect fine and coarse particulate matter in the air in real-time.

What Aclima found was that the data from Google’s cars matched up with that of the local EPA monitoring stations, but also provided more detail. For instance: Concentrations of ozone and nitric oxide were higher near freeways and major traffic arteries. And ozone levels spiked right around 4 p.m., when children were getting out of school.

Aclima plans to expand to the point where the project can do what its very earnest founders have been promising — make the link between planetary health and human health visible, by helping people actually see pollution as it flows and ebbs around the world. “It’s the best possible thing,” says Lunden. “We can say ‘Now, here’s the air quality in your neighborhood, here’s where you work, here’s where you live.’ Every person can make a data-driven decision.”

GPS used to just be used by the government. It became more accessible over the last 50 years. And now the location awareness is embedded into everything we do.  GPS owes its ubiquity to political decisions that kept it in the public realm though.

Without mandates like that, your cellphone might never have been able to find the closest nearby coffee shop, give you directions to Reno — or track your movements and sell them to advertisers. The financial and political life of technology is strange, and long. In the decades that the U.S. has promoted collaborations between private companies and public research, we’ve played out just about every kind of tension between the public good that follows from public data and the private gain that can be had from charging for and restricting access to that kind of information.

It’s possible that Google will be willing to pay for Aclima’s data, the same way that it was willing to buy satellite images for Google Maps — because it helped them sell more ads and search referrals. It’s also possible that Aclima won’t find enough buyers for their data, and the whole project will need to find some other financial model, or win public support, or fold.

All of this is in the future. In the meantime, says Lunden, there is a lot of data, which is the exciting part. “We’re just trying to figure out how to get it into the hands of people who can make sense of it.”

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