Google unveils first air quality mapping system

As more urban areas succumb to increased exposure to air pollution, Google has released its first block-by-block data set in California to enable residents to make different travel route decisions and help improve air quality in the area.

On Monday (5 June), Google Maps released air quality information for Oakland, California. Data was collected using street view cars equipped with sensors developed by environmental sensor producers Aclima.

The sensors record levels of pollutants emitted from cars, such as nitrogen dioxide and black carbon, so that non-profits and residents can identify areas where air quality could be improved, either by choosing a different route to work, or using other means of transport.

Google Earth’s outreach programme manager Karin Tuxen-Bettman said: “Every day we use data about the world around us to make decisions. One useful dataset is air pollution data, which contains much-needed information that can help us understand how to live healthier lives, build smarter and more sustainable cities, and reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases in both urban and rural areas.

“This is one of the largest air quality datasets ever published, and demonstrates the potential of neighbourhood-level air quality mapping. This map makes the invisible, visible, so that we can breathe better and live healthier. It helps us understand how clean (or not clean) our air is, so that we can make changes to improve it.”

This isn’t the first-time Google has used its street view mapping system to highlight environmental capabilities and concerns of certain areas. In 2015, the company launched Project Sunroof, which told residents how much solar energy they could generate if they installed solar panels on houses.

Although the data released this week is limited to Oakland, Google has collected almost three million measurements across 14,000 miles of road over the course of the year, and could extend the programme in the near future.

Google has worked with the US Environmental Defence Fund for the project since 2015, and scientists can request access to the validated data for other cities now.

Dumping diesel

While the data isn’t available for UK cities, Britons are moving away from polluting diesel vehicles, which accounted for all of the European Union’s road transport emissions last year.

Sales of electric vehicles (EV) in UK increased last month, while demand for diesel cars dropped by nearly a fifth. According to monthly figures from industry trade body SMMT, more than 81,000 new diesel vehicles were registered in May 2017, a near 20% fall from the May 2016.

The decline see diesel’s market share fall from 50% to 43.7%. On the other hand, EV sales progressed in May, growing by 33% annually, with almost 3,000 registered last month.

But the decline in EVs is doing little to change illegal air quality levels in the UK. Last week, it was revealed that environmental lawyers ClientEarth had taken the government to the high court for a third time over “flawed” minister plans to tackle the UK’s levels of air pollution.

Matt Mace

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