If you’ve ever been to London, then you are likely aware that the air quality is extremely poor. When I landed there, I could barely breathe. Call me dramatic, if you must, but there is nothing filtering the polluted air that’s going into my nose and lungs. While that was many years ago now, Mayor Sadiq Khan is making it his mission to curb the pollution and improve air quality. Would an “amen” be too much right here? How is Khan going to do this? According to him, data is going to play an important role and so is Google. As part of a new project, two Google Street View cars will begin pulling double duty as mobile air quality monitors next month. Will this help though? I mean, they’re sending out cars (which pollute) to help solve a problem?
The vehicles have been fitted with sensors that will measure pollutant levels, as well as temperature, humidity and pressure, once every 30 meters as they wind their way around London. This data will be used to complement readings from another 100 static sensors dotted around the city. London has several veteran sensor networks and is no stranger to shorter-term monitoring projects, but this new initiative is said to be on a different scale, capable of painting a near real-time, “hyperlocal” picture of air quality across the city.
Why Google? Google’s cars are well suited or the job, mostly because of the fact that they are always driving around. This gives the city an advantage of similar projects that have been conducted in the past. In 2015, sensor-equipped cars started recording air composition in California, and last year Google published data that it captured in the Oakland area, as well as some other broader regions. But Google isn’t the only company working on this for the City of London. In fact, Kings College London, the University of Cambridge, the National Physical Laboratory and Environmental Defense Fund are all working on this particular initiative. So when I said it was bad earlier, I wasn’t exaggerating. Many, many organizations are needed in order to tackle this pollution problem.
Sadiq Khan has actually been pretty aggressive when it comes to improving the quality of London’s air quality during his time in office. While it is a huge undertaking, there are still many, many small gains happening. Recently, Khan announced that they were adding 70 or more zero-emission buses to their fleet. They are also planning to expand London’s ultra-low emission zone in which the most polluting vehicles must pay a daily charge to enter. I feel like this was proposed a long time ago, but maybe I have it wrong. There are many really great initiatives in progress, but it’s going to be hard to document everything. That said, it’s also very important that they document everything. The city should create a baseline map of air quality across the city so they can figure out where their gains are in the future.