SDG11: How granular data is helping to tackle the air pollution crisis

clock • 4 min read

US air sensor pioneer is working with governments, businesses, and communities around the world to ensure action to tackle air pollution - and deliver on SDG11 - is properly targeted

Barely a month goes by without new revelations about the damage done by breathing toxic air. The World Health Organisation estimates it kills seven million people a year, more than HIV, TB, and malaria combined. Recent research has even suggested a link with dementia, as tiny particles enter and damage the brain.

The dangers have been known for decades: the US Congress first passed a 'Clean Air Act' in 1955. But until recently, our capacity to monitor air pollution levels was limited. The only way to gather data was to install huge stationary sites, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

But recent advances in sensor technology have swept away these limitations. And the results have revolutionised scientists' understanding of how air pollution is distributed, empowering policy-makers to take radically more effective action to counter a crisis that dogs so many of the world's major cities.

One firm that has been at the forefront of this work is Aclima. Established a decade ago in San Francisco, it attaches small air-pollution sensors - around the size of two shoeboxes - to vehicles. Rather than taking readings at distinct points - as with stationary sensors - the sensors can timestamp and geolocate air pollution readings as they go, creating a continuous map of pollutant levels.

"What we've been able to show is that air pollution is actually hyperlocal," says Kimberley Hunter, Aclima's director of communications. "It can vary by as much as eight times along a single block."

The firm began operations in its local area. In Oakland, its data exposed a previously unidentified culprit, illuminating an air pollution hot spot around a metal recycling factory. Other findings revealed the outsized role played by specific vehicles. Oakland's port is served by two roads, one of which allows diesel trucks and one which does not. Aclima's data showed a marked difference in particulate matter pollution between the two, with measurements significantly higher on the road with the trucks - "a tale of two freeways," as Hunter puts it.

Having harvested such granular data, Aclima converts it into a suite of tools tailored to different markets: regulators, businesses, and local communities, providing a kit for organisations that are working to deliver on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 or the wider vision of greener cities.

"A lot of our work with regulators involves using these tools to identify emissions hot spots," Hunter explains. "This is really helpful, as governments have such finite resources that this helps them zero in on high-value spots."

In Los Angeles, for example, Aclima measured pollution levels at different schools. The worst affected could then be fitted with better air quality filtration systems.

As well as working with local authorities, Aclima plans to step up its work with the private sector. It is currently developing tools tailored to utility companies, such as firms that manage natural gas lines, which need help identifying leaks. "It's good for the climate, but also good for business, because it's eliminating wasted product," Hunter argues.

Aclima also makes its data available to local communities and individuals, converting it into accessible visualisations that can be viewed online - whether by an environmental campaign group in LA, or a concerned mum in San Diego with an asthmatic child. The open data approach empowers anyone to take action towards SDG11, which includes the specific target to "reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality".

"Someone in San Diego can put in their address and see points of interest nearby," Hunter explains. They could choose to change the route for their daily run, for example, or their commute to work, to avoid particular air pollution hot spots.

As concerns around the public health damage of air pollution grows, Aclima's business has been boosted by local government action. Recent legislation mandated a number of communities to monitor their air quality, as part of a drive to reduce the effects of air pollution on disadvantaged communities. The legislation assigned grant money to initiate the air monitoring programs.

"There is a real opportunity here, with more and more governments and organisations looking for these tools," Hunter predicts. This opportunity has taken Aclima's business model far beyond the US: it recently began monitoring pollutant levels in Manila, the sprawling capital of the Philippines. Aclima was connected with the city's authorities by Clean Air Asia, an NGO that works to help notoriously polluted east and south Asian cities clean up their air.

"This is complex technology that took a long time to build," Hunter says. "We're proud to be working with our partners to bring it to the world at this critical moment."

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