Not-for-profit aims to create nationwide network of low cost sensors to boost availability of air quality data
A not-for-profit company has installed a set of low cost air sensors in parts of west London as a first step in what it hopes will be a nationwide programme to provide data on air quality to public authorities, community groups and researchers.
AirSensa has placed the first tranche of 50 sensors in the capital, and plans to install a second group, taking the total above 100, by the end of October. In the longer term it aims to place about 10,000 sensors around London and has begun to talking to the authorities of other cities about further installations.
Chief executive officer Jonathan Steel told UKAuthority that the effort has four objectives.
“One is to increase public awareness,” he said. “If people understood more about air quality there would be an outcry. It kills more people than are killed on the roads and by obesity, and we want to give people the opportunity to learn how to avoid it.
“The second is to engage with schools because that’s where you start the behavioural change. Children are more vulnerable to air pollution so we want to measure it around schools.
“Third is to provide large amounts of data for public policy and planning processes. Policies around transport are particularly important as it’s where about 85% of our air pollution comes from, but also to provide the data for universities.
“Lastly to be a platform for innovation. Once you start rolling out a network like this it can help with more than air quality, but also smart cities and large scale sensor networks. There are very few people around the world doing large scale sensor networks.”
He said the price of sensors has so far been a deterrent to widespread roll outs, and that AirSensa has focused on producing them at a lower cost. The units cost £2,500, considerably less than those used in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Automatic Urban and Rural Network, and have lower running costs.
This could make it possible to install more sensors within a given area than is the case in existing sensor networks, and thereby produce more accurate data. Steel said it has the potential to be more extensive than the London Air Quality Network operated by King’s College, and to make it a viable proposition for other cities.
The sensors take continuous readings of air pollutants, including PM2.5 particulates – currently the main cause of anxieties around pollution – along with nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide and carbon monoxide. They can also measure temperature , humidity and noise levels, and Steel said they will be further developed to measure the smaller PM1 particulates.
They feed data to the company’s STORRM Cloud software platform, which combines an analytics and big data function with a manufacturing test and analysis feature. It can then be used for a range of purposes, the most immediate of which is likely to be the creation of apps providing visualisations and localised alerts of pollution. AirSensa might develop its own app but is also speaking with other developers.
“We’re not ready to do it yet because we don’t have the data, but we want the widest possible audience for it because that’s the objective of the project,” Steel said, adding: “At the end of the day, probably the most useful consumption of the data we can imagine is to help people avoid health problems.”
Steel said that working with local authorities is a priority, and that he can see two major areas of potential: in creating strategies to help people avoid areas with high pollution on a given day; and in encouraging people to change their behaviour to create less pollution, notably by walking and cycling more.
There is also an educational potential in enabling schools to use data from sensors mounted on their buildings.
“There’s an endless list of things we can do once we have the data,” he said. “To do all of those, ideally you have the local authority onboard, but you also then partner with others, such as community groups, charities, schools and all the way up.”
The first significant data set is expected to emerge from readings in an unnamed London borough through the final quarter of the year.
“At the moment we’re still collecting data and adjusting our collaborating algorithms and so on,” Steel said. “Measuring air quality is a very complex thing, which is the reason we’re partnering with universities to draw on their experience of running small networks. We’re basically taking that and scaling it to a much larger network.”
He said this includes one team within Cambridge University and that there have been discussions with others.
Private sector support
Financial support for the programme, amounting to more than £1 million so far, has come entirely from the private sector and individuals who have sponsored sensors on buildings and schools.
“It’s an important and localised social responsibility thing that companies can do,” Steel said. “It resonates well, bringing together schools, families, communities and local business.”
Picture by Andy Weisner from Düsseldorf, Germany (London aerial view 3), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons