One of the most critical issues to emerge in the last century has been the impact of the Industrial Age on air quality, particularly in major cities.
Air quality has become a priority in cities across the United States. Leaders in metropolitan areas have tried for decades to better manage emissions of carbon monoxide and other harmful substances, with some having greater success than others.
It’s goes far beyond image. Poor air quality has been tied to a number of health issues, including cancer, as well as with increased mortality rates.
Advances in the collection and analysis of large datasets in the past decade are now playing a role in helping with this issue. These include sensors that offer officials and citizens real-time data on air quality and high-tech cameras that allow for identifying the worst sources of air pollution, also in real-time.
Managing Air Quality
Air pollution is defined simply as the “emission of harmful substances into the atmosphere.” according to the Our World In Data website. This can include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds.
It’s become a big issue, obviously, with the proliferation of widespread industrial operations across the country as well as the millions of cars on the road that emit pollutants.
The World Health Organization lists air pollution as one of the biggest health threats humans face. They estimate that 3 million people a year die from ambient outdoor pollution.
The good news is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that air pollution has been reduced by 30% in the past 30 years. But more work remains to be done on this important issue.
Air Quality Data
The EPA has set up networks across the country to monitor air quality. They include systems that monitor emissions into the air and the amount of pollution that settles onto the Earth’s surface. But because air quality can fluctuate day-to-day, long-term and detailed analysis is needed to draw conclusions.
That costs money. The EPA reports that $200 million is spent each year on monitoring air quality. But continuing these programs is vital as it gives scientists crucial data on the state of air quality as well as potential sources of pollution.
In addition to national air quality monitoring systems, each state also has set up their own system. Some larger cities have established systems as well.
Advances in data collection and analysis are now aiding these efforts. Because of the millions of data points involved – as well as the need to ensure that data is interpreted in ways that can help drive better environmental policy – data scientists work with automated software systems to crunch large datasets.
They also have turned to the Internet of Things (IoT) to use remote sensors on real-world objects that can gather and transmit data continuously.
One breakthrough involves combining two sets of data. The first is data collected from traditional, stationary air monitoring devices and the second is those that are mobile, such as sensors placed on vehicles.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, this involves three challenges:
- Using data from stationary sensors that record data throughout the day to back up findings of mobile sensors. In other words, the ability to compare mobile data on air quality during rush hour with stationary data of the air quality on a Sunday afternoon when traffic is light.
- Developing methods to determine the size of the dataset needed to make significant conclusions. This is important as all the information from stationary and mobile sensors results in millions of data points.
- Using sensors in a systematic way to ensure that no area is left uncovered and vital air quality data is not missed.
Data in Use
Several cities already are putting innovative technology to use when trying to get more granular information on air quality.
In Chicago, a network of sensors has been put into place that gather air quality data. Affixed to lamp posts, over time this network will provide city leaders with a map of air quality across the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. This system is also being used to collect weather and traffic information.
In Pittsburgh, a coalition of government, businesses and nonprofit organizations have launched The Breathe Project. It includes four high resolution cameras that offer a panoramic view of the city as well as air quality data. They allow citizens to zoom in on potential sources of pollution. This is especially important in Pittsburgh, a city that has been beleaguered by poor air quality in the past.
Leaders in Louisville, Ken., have taken a different approach. They have given special inhalers to those with asthma that transmit information on where and when those who suffer from asthma are the most affected. They believe this will eventually give them a detailed map on the locations across the city where air quality is the worst, as well as what times of the day present the most issues.
All of this is being done in a widespread effort to use technology in the ongoing battle with air pollution. Most leaders have come to recognize that while industry and jobs are clearly important, air quality is the most vital resource any city, state or country has.