Google’s Street View cars are exposing hyperlocal air pollution trends

Google's Street View cars are exposing local air pollution.

Battling air pollution is a tough job. Typically, scientists and government organizations try to measure air quality on a city- or country-wide scale. That’s because the equipment typically used to detect things like pollution and harmful gases is stationary and expensive.

Google sees the world a little differently. Since 2015, its Street View cars that snap photos for its Maps service have been outfitted with special sensors from Aclima—a company that measures hyperlocal air pollution. Starting Thursday, researchers are now able to access the data that has been collected over the years.

Google and Aclima hope that it will help scientists expose trends and pinpoint areas of poor air quality down to the street.

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Innovative Thinking

The idea of putting air pollution sensors on cars meant to take pictures of roads certainly wasn’t conventional. When Google first did so in 2015, it wasn’t clear what kind of results it would yield.

Aclima first had to develop a smaller version of the standard sensors that could be added to Google’s fleet of cars. After they were equipped, the Street View cars went to work. They needed to take air quality measurements repeatedly on the same city streets to get an idea of what the area’s baseline pollution is.

Fortunately, that’s what the cars do best.

Since they launched, the sensors have collected more than 42 million air quality measurements. These include checking for levels of smog, soot, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and methane.

Researchers interested in accessing the newly released dataset can do so for free. They’ll just need to apply first to confirm that they are affiliated with a scientific or academic community.

Precise Analytics

Measuring air quality on a large scale is better than nothing. However, it omits granular-level data that can cause disparities for those living in areas with worse pollution. Checking levels on a street-by-street basis is a far more accurate way of doing things.

“We’re really increasing the pixels on the picture of air quality. The technology or the methodology to do that just hadn’t been available,” says Aclima co-founder and CEO Davida Herzl.

She adds, “On a single city block on one end, you might have one level of pollution, and on the other end, you can have levels of pollution that are eight times higher. Those hotspots can be persistent for years. It really matters where you live.”

Studies have shown that those living in high poverty areas are more likely to suffer from bad air quality. Of course, there are countless negative health effects that go with it. A 2018 study that used data collected by Google and Aclima found that there is a link between street-level air quality and heart disease in Oakland, California, residents.

For now, data from the trial is limited to California since that’s where Google’s Street View cars took measurements. However, if the dataset proves useful, the program could be expanded to other parts of the country. A fleet of 50 new cars is already scheduled to be deployed this year.

Aclima and Google hope that the hyperlocal data will help identify and remedy disparities that exist. Herzl says, “If we don’t have the data, we don’t see it, it’s literally invisible.”

Thanks to air quality data gathered by Google’s Street View cars and Aclima’s sensors, that data is now in plain sight.


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