Data Technologies Give Grip On Clean Air

How regional, national and global efforts to track air quality can protect people during risky times and eventually lead to cleaner air.

By Adam Stone

By Adam Stone September 20, 2023

Summer was supposed to smell like fresh-cut grass, salty sea breezes and hot dogs on the grill. In much of North America, however, the summer of 2023 smelled mostly like pollution.

The culprit was climate change, which made itself known across the Midwest and the Northeast with haze, smog and smoke from Canadian wildfires that strangled the summer skies and triggered air-quality warnings from Kansas to New York, and from Michigan to North Carolina.

Since its initial passage in 1963, the Clean Air Act has done much to ensure breathable air across the United States. However, there clearly is work still left to do. In fact, half the world’s population still struggles with pollution, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

The main concern is fine particulate matter — microscopic particles and condensed liquid droplets that linger in the air from fires, construction sites, unpaved roads, motor vehicles, power plants and myriad other sources of pollution. In the immediate term, fine particulate matter can cause symptoms like coughing and wheezing. In the long term, however, it can increase the risk of chronic health problems like asthma, respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer.

Increases in natural disasters from climate change, including wildfires, heat and drought, are making the problem worse, according to the American Lung Association, whose 2023 “State of the Air” report says more than one in three Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution.


Tool Estimates Data Center Carbon Emissions and Power Consumption

If they’re successful, global efforts to embrace clean energy and electric vehicles could make a major difference. In the meantime, however, one of the most effective tools there is for combatting poor air quality is cloud computing, which helps both scientists and citizens track metrics like temperature, air pressure and humidity.

By delivering air quality insights in real time — through air quality analysis systems that often connect to cloud computing to deliver data mobile apps — the cloud helps humanity predict trends and take preemptive action. These insights can help people avoid dangerous air, which can lead to a faster return of clean air.

Sensing Smog

In the smart cities of today and tomorrow, cloud-connected sensors are the front lines of air quality measurement and remediation. Their increasing power, affordability and ubiquity are major advantages in the fight against pollution.

For example, consider mobile air quality sensor Flatburn, a low-cost, open-source pollution detector created by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in an attempt to democratize air quality monitoring.

“The goal is for community groups or individual citizens anywhere to be able to measure local air pollution, identify its sources and, ideally, create feedback loops … to create cleaner conditions,” Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, said in a news release.


Tackling Climate Change Challenges with Cloud Computing

Meanwhile, NASA for the first time has developed a spaceborne smog sensor that will generate pollution data in real time. Called “Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution,” or TEMPO, it will be “the first instrument of its kind that will measure concentrations of dangerous air pollutants from geostationary orbit,” the equatorial ring where satellites hold over a fixed spot on Earth, reports.

With a stationary orbit, the satellite-borne sensors will now have the ability to gather information on air quality throughout the course of an entire day, potentially driving a deeper understanding of trends and patterns, according to NASA scientists.

Ingesting More Information, Fewer Pollutants

It’s not just the ability to collect data that makes the cloud such an effective tool in the fight against pollution. It’s also the ability to share it in ways that inform and inspire.

Mapping can be a particularly effective way to present cloud-based data, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which is a supporter of Breathe London, a project that uses a network of advanced air pollution sensors across London — including mobile sensors on Google Street View cars, as well as stationary sensors on buildings and lampposts — to measure and map residents’ daily exposure to air pollution in a way that can inform personal decision-making as well urban planning.

“Seeing pollution mapped this way makes us better advocates for cleaner air and smart development choices,” EDF Senior Health Scientist Elena Craft said on EDF’s website.


Green Data Centers: Designing an Eco-Smart Future

Thanks to Spare the Air, residents in the San Francisco Bay Area also can map air quality threats. A longstanding project of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, it began in 1991 and includes a five-day air quality forecast that spans more than seven counties. In those counties, residents can look ahead to see how healthy or unhealthy air pollution levels are expected to be. When air quality is forecast to be unhealthy, an alert is issued to subscribers by phone, text message or email.

At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Wildfire Smoke Air Monitoring Response Technology (WSMART) program loans supplemental air monitoring technologies to state, local, and tribal air organizations to help them gather timely data with which to assess smoke impacts and provide public health information.

With help from the cloud, these and similar efforts help individuals and governments better understand air-quality risks so they can make better decisions for air quality management and mitigation.

Air Quality Apps That Empower

Increasingly, air quality cloud data generated via sensors is consumed via apps. The EPA’s AirNow mobile app, for example, enables users to check information of current and forecasted air quality. It displays an Air Quality Index, or AQI, for a given area to help people better plan their activities — especially on high-risk days.

Or there’s IQAir’s AirVisual app, which brings together air pollution data collected by governments, companies and individuals around the world so that users can track key pollutants, receive location-based air quality alerts and take proactive measures to avoid hazardous air quality in their daily lives.

Yet another example is the Plume Labs air quality app, which lets users track pollution peaks and “fresh air moments” throughout the day as they plan their daily activities. The app features street-level maps of air quality to help users find clean air pockets and pollution hotspots in their immediate area.

“Air pollution is complicated and can be overwhelming,” Romain Lacombe, Plume Labs founder and CEO, said in a press release. “Our goal is to make clean air approachable so you can take action.”

Cloud Computing and Clean Air

Cloud computing helps industries like agriculture protect the food supply from climate change. By making air quality data more accessible and actionable, it can help individuals, companies and policymakers make similar strides to protect the air supply.

“Understanding air quality requires tracking massive amounts of data,” said Josh Odmark, a machine learning engineer and CTO of air-quality technology company IAQ. “[This] is best accomplished using the tools of big data and machine learning to measure, process and constantly learn from increasingly larger datasets.”


Can Cloud-Based Farming Make Agriculture More Sustainable?

The cloud makes those capabilities readily available, at scale — which is critical given the growing scope of available air quality data.

“Cloud is an essential piece because of the commodity nature of storage on the cloud,” said Russ Biggs, director of technology at environmental tech nonprofit OpenAQ, which aggregates open air quality data from many different data sources and distributes it for universal access via the cloud. 

“If you're collecting hourly averages, you get 24 measurements a day, 365 days a year, across lots of different locations. And with more and more community-run projects, that data is exploding.”

As nonprofits, governments and individuals seek to tackle that mass of air quality data in the years ahead, cloud-based air quality technology will continue to play a pivotal role thanks to the cloud’s superior speed and scalability. By delivering new and deeper insights in support of environmental advocacy, it just might help the climate-anxious world breathe a sigh of relief — literally.

Adam Stone is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering technology trends in the public and private sectors.

© 2023 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. For additional legal information, please go here.