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Making the invisible visible by mapping air quality

How clean is the air we breathe? How much climate-warming greenhouse gases are our cities emitting? These are difficult questions to answer because most air pollution is measured at a city level, not at the neighborhood or community level which is more relevant to people's daily lives. With street-level air pollution data, a parent of an asthmatic child could reduce exposure to air pollution that causes asthma attacks when they go to the park to play. Bike commuters and outdoor enthusiasts could find the healthiest route for their trips. Or a city planner could pinpoint areas of low air quality in her city and devise specific solutions to improve it. Seeing where and when the air quality is good or bad could help identify how to reduce pollution most effectively—like changing traffic light patterns to reduce idling traffic or keeping heavy trucks out of neighborhoods that are most vulnerable.

Today at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York, we’re announcing with Aclima that we will measure air pollution in more communities and map air quality at the street level. This follows our 2014 project with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to map methane leaking from natural gas local distribution systems, and our project to map multiple air pollutants in Denver with Aclima, which we announced in July.

Now, we’re equipping Google Street View cars with Aclima’s air pollution sensing platform to measure and map air quality in at least three major metropolitan areas in California, including communities in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Central Valley regions. With 38 million residents and nearly 30 million registered vehicles, managing California’s air quality is among the most challenging problems in the United States.

At high concentrations, particulate matter, black carbon, ozone, and other pollutants can trigger asthma attacks and make COPD worse. Worldwide, these pollutants lead to millions of premature deaths every year. These are the pollutants our cars will be measuring. Scientists working with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other partners are already helping us determine how the equipped vehicles should drive in order to collect data more efficiently. We’ll make the data collected during our drives available on Google Earth Engine to scientists and air quality experts, including the EDF and others, who will help analyze and model the data with the goal of linking human health impacts to air pollution and exploring other applications at a community level.

In the long run, our vision is to enable individuals, communities and policy-makers to make smart decisions to improve their health and our environment. By putting street-level air quality information overlaid on Google Earth and Google Maps, we’re making it more useful and actionable. And this, we hope, will lead to cleaner air. 

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