Did you know that air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year? World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits containing high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.
But what does this mean for your employees and communities? Is it possible to reduce exposure to air pollution by improving understanding of what we breathe? Let’s figure it out.
To answer these questions and more, we partnered with Google to create the world’s first employee-crowdsourced air pollution exposure map and dashboard using Flow personal pollution and more.
But the partnership didn’t stop there. The team went on to use these tools to initiate positive discussions and behaviour change related to sustainability and improved personal health.
So how did we do it? Science! Civic science, that is. The team recruited 43 volunteers to track their pollution exposure over the course of 6 weeks and close the data gap.
Each participant was set-up with a Flow personal air quality sensor, allowing them to collect and observe air quality info in real-time, and be alerted when the readings got higher. Their Flows went where they went, and breathed what they breathed, collecting data all along the way. All of this air quality data was automatically associated with participant geo locations to try to understand the specific context where air pollution events occured.
Ready for more info about that groundbreaking map and dashboard?
The community dashboard was designed so participants could visualize pollution hotspots, and see where they were exposed to particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide or volatile organic compounds.. The dashboard was also set up so people could compare their exposure with fellow participants. There were 3 key features that made this possible:
- The community air quality map,
- Exposure charts, and
- Live, street-by-street pollution maps of Taiwan.
Here’s a closer look…
The Community Air Quality Map
The crowdsourced air quality map focused on community health. The individual spots and paths traced with the participants’ Flows were anonymised and aggregated in the map.
Participants could visualize personal AQ exposures on the paths (walk, bike, drive, train,…) taken by their co-participants—the places they went, and the spots they stayed at. Participants could also filter by type of move, by date range, and by pollutant.
Exposure Charts and Graphs
Participants could easily visualize the air quality near the different office locations and the average air quality their group is exposed to, as well as air quality variation and trend by selected air pollutants, e.g. PM 2.5, over time.
Street by Street Air Quality Map
We built some stunning real-time pollution visualizations based on our street-by-street pollution maps (now available for more than 100 major urban centers across the US and the EU). Participants could type in an address and check the outdoor real-time air quality to plan their activities—hiking, biking to work, or playing in a park.
Want to see your own city map? Check out the World Air Map.
What can we learn from all of this?
To begin with, we discovered that air quality exposure is highly personal. Average pollution exposure varied based on where people went, how they got there. For example, the data showed that walking or biking was better than driving or taking the train. Exposure also varied based on what activities participants or the people around them were performing, even what and how they cooked! Timing was also a critical factor—when people traveled and spent time outdoors. Pollution peaks were spread-out during the day. This means that as a community, we have to be on the lookout for high air pollution in every aspect of our daily life. When we are able to clearly identify which action and environment generates the most air pollution, we can protect ourselves but also reduce our impact on the community’s air quality.
One of the reasons air quality exposure is so personal is that pollution is not only an issue outdoors and in city centers, indoor air quality plays an extremely important role in a participant’s total air pollution exposure experiences. In general, people spend 70-80% time in indoor environments.
Quantitative research is critical, but it was also important to bring qualitative elements into the project as well. For example, interviewing participants to get their thoughts and impressions, behaviour changes and stories.
By conducting these surveys and interviews, we learned 3 key things:
- an amazing >40% of participants adapted or changed their outdoor exercises or activities based on accessible Air Quality data!
- people learned a ton about pollution—38% of participants considered themselves as very knowledgeable about Air Quality before the project, vs. 70% after the project.
- Participants took actions in order to protect themselves against air pollution , e.g. wear a mask more often, use air purifiers, change cooking habits..
Finally, people had fun and were feeling great.
”I was curious about the areas I spent a lot of time in, so I checked the air quality to make sure of my own wellbeing. When I smelled anything, I checked the air quality ”
Where do we go from here?
This project showed us that air quality data and awareness empowers people. Air pollution is not always predictable, but exposure is preventable. We have also proved that this kind of project is replicable.
By working together, we can do this again—bigger, better!