Understanding air quality better: How better air pollution data can impact us?

There’s an immense need to track and improve air quality and building technology that can also address other environmental factors, hyperlocally and real-time.

Let’s start with a simple premise – if you can’t measure something, you can’t fix it. You can’t trust a solution built without data any more than you would trust a blind tailor to make your wedding clothes.

We live in the data age today. Our world is measured down to infinitesimal levels using a multitude of sensors and algorithms. This ocean of information has revolutionised most day-to-day tasks.

Take, for example, calling a taxi. A decade ago, if you were in an unfamiliar town, you asked around for the number of a taxi service. Then you bargained and hoped you weren’t getting ripped off. This service was often booked well in advance and wasn’t available at all hours. Today, you whip out your phone and after a few presses, a taxi shows up at your front gate. Data is used to analyse where you are, where you want to go, how much time it will take, your ability to pay for the ride, and whether a car is near you.

In a similar way, everything from shopping to eating out (or in) takes place with each component being measured and analysed. Except for the very air you breathe.

The air you breathe is a direct indicator of immediate and long-term health. Small changes in air pollution – the kind you might find between different streets or neighbourhoods – are proven to significantly increase the risk of various cancers, heart disease, birth deformities, and even dementia and diabetes.

The WHO has declared air pollution the greatest threat to human health and the environment. Even the recent COVID-19 pandemic has been shown to increase fatalities in areas with high air pollution.

It is surprising that the basic way to measure how bad (or good) the air you breathe is, hasn’t changed in many decades. The technology has remained the same since the 1960s, with small incremental improvements like an internet connection tacked on. These monitors, often the size of a shed, cost in the crores of rupees, need constant maintenance, and have effective ranges of operation of a few hundred metres.

Small wonder then that governments and regulatory bodies struggle to keep up with pollution monitoring and control requirements. Measuring a large Indian city is a nightmare using this technology, and that’s without considering that a vast majority of this country is rural and at risk from air pollution.

Various alternatives, like satellite data have been proposed, but it comes with its own set of problems. Satellites either have poor resolution — the best raw resolution so far is a single pixel covering about 25 square kilometres — or don’t stay over a place all day. Having a few minutes of data is hardly going to help understand what you’re breathing throughout the day.

Air quality data for individuals

Now look at what granular and hyperlocal data could do. For those of us that ride to work, the ability to ‘see’ pollution on the way may well incentivise us to choose a route that is a couple of minutes longer, but noticeably cleaner.

For the joggers and runners among us, picking a cleaner path or choosing the right time to run makes a huge difference to our overall health. Biking or running a polluted route if you’re health conscious is like eating ice cream after every workout and hoping to lose weight. You could start making decisions on where to rent a house or office, looking at historical data.

After all, family health is a basic factor in any decision. Even schools can be triaged, depending on which school’s play area and routes are least polluted. Bear in mind, when you think of how kids are exposed to pollution, that half of all children in Delhi already have irreversible lung damage. These are just some of the steps individuals can take.

Air quality data for businesses

The ability to use air quality data isn’t limited to individuals alone. Businesses will find this useful and value adding. Imagine how an insurer could work with policyholders, helping them improve their health and reduce risk, all based on what they breathe.

Drug formulations could be developed and tested better and faster if environmental data was considered. Real estate companies would pick cleaner neighbourhoods for development. They would also be sure to stick to best practices in construction, ensuring that the area remains clean.

All industries that strive to meet emissions and pollution norms could ensure real-time compliance and reporting, satisfying customers, authorities, and investors. With the current focus on ESG norms, this would go a long way with a lot of people.

Air quality data for governments

Governments and administrations can also benefit massively from better air pollution data. Data-driven decisions are a key factor in better governance, and India continues to be amongst the earliest adopters of this trend. Using hyperlocal and real-time air pollution data, a government can make an informed decision on whether initiatives like no-car zones, odd-even days, or one-way roads make an appreciable difference to the environment.

Quick crackdowns on polluters, using real-time data, will have the triple effect of better public health, increased government revenue through fines, and increased goodwill across the citizenry. Public health, a massive concern that will only balloon, can also be hugely impacted using air quality data.

Whether it means apportioning better health resources in the form of medicines or pulmonologists in sensitive areas, or a longer term effort in curbing air pollution, the possibilities are immense.

Building technology that can track air quality and other environmental factors, hyper locally and in real time, will push boundaries in technology and data science. But as you can see, the results can be very rewarding, and potentially game changing for humanity itself.

(Edited by Apoorva Puranik)

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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