As part of the ISpex EU project, residents are being asked to install a free app and camera filter on their smartphones and then go out and scan the sky.

The app takes up to 25 pictures during a scan, searching for tiny particles of aerosol pollutants. It then ranks the cleanliness of your atmosphere from light blue for a clear sky to dark brown for a large amount of aerosols.

This information will appear on a live map in the app and will eventually be analysed to help map aerosol data all over Europe. The ISpex EU project is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme which aims to foster innovation. 

“Atmospheric aerosols play an important but as-yet poorly understood role in climate and air quality, with significant impacts on our environment, health, and air traffic,” explained the ISpex website.

“To assess their role and consequential implications, aerosols need to be measured with high spatio-temporal resolution.”

The ISpex website said that current satellite-based monitoring does not have the requisite resolution to monitor aerosols, which are particularly fine atmospheric particles, thus necessitating the crowdsourced smartphone solution.

The project has completed a successful trial run in the Netherlands and is launching in nine more European cities on 1 September, including Barcelona, Berlin and Rome.The researchers are aiming for 750 ‘citizen scientists’ in both London and Manchester.

Air pollution is thought to contribute to more than 29,000 premature deaths each year in the UK.  In April the UK Government was ordered by the Supreme Court to improve air quality standards and reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates the problem costs the global economy £53bn each year.

Technology breakthrough

In another attempt to reduce the cost of air pollution monitoring, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) unveiled a new monitoring device on Monday that is reportedly 100 times cheaper than existing solutions.

According to UNEP, the device is capable of collecting all the vital parameters of air quality, and will cost around $1,500 per unit.

This theoretically allows governments to establish a countrywide network of mobile and stationary air monitoring stations for as little as $150,000-200,000 – roughly the same amount of money as is necessary to set up just one monitoring station.  

UNEP plans to make the blueprints of its device publicly available, allowing governments and organizations to assemble or fabricate the units themselves.

UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said: “Each year, air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths around the world, with outdoor pollution responsible for more than half of that total. Tragically, these deaths are wholly preventable.

“We know from the WHO that 88% of deaths related to outdoor pollution occur in low- and middle-income countries. Yet it is these same developing countries that typically lack access to data on their air quality. UNEP’s device can spark a data boom to help countries reduce the negative effects of air pollution, potentially saving lives that would have been lost due to air pollution-related illnesses.” 

Brad Allen

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