Brief update on Air Quality

NorCal smoke

Despite the drastic measure of cutting power to hundreds of thousands (and potentially millions more) of people in efforts prevent wildfires, California is burning again. And with fires comes smoke, enough to close schools across Los Angeles out of concern for air quality and further north the winds are projected to shift and will be blowing smoke on millions of people over the next few days. This on the heels of news that after decades of improvement, air quality in the US is suddenly getting worse. In anticipation of questions on the subject we thought now would be a good time to quickly discuss the state of our air quality monitoring efforts.

NorCal smoke

USDA Forest Service satellite photo of Northern California smoke from wildfires

In 2012 we began looking at air quality as something that might compliment the radiation data we’d begun publishing a year earlier. However, where radiation monitoring benefits from longstanding agreements on how and what to measure, air quality measurement standards were still actively being debated. Over the following years Safecast produced a number of prototypes to begin looking at the data and thinking about what we could best contribute to an increasingly crowded arena. As it became increasingly clear that particulate matter was the most important thing to look at for both health and environment, as well as the best understood method of measurement, we focused our attention on that and tried to offer some best practices that we’d learned through our radiation measurement efforts. In 2017 we deployed our first generation Air Quality sensors in Los Angeles and we’re currently finishing up production on our next generation solar powered and cellular connected air monitoring devices (a compliment to the Solarcast Nano) which we’ll be deploying and talking more about very soon. Additionally, along with several other organizations we helped to develop the Air Quality Data Commons as a pool of open source and open access air quality data.

Anyone familiar with our work knows that providing easily accessible open data is our primary goal. Last year, for instance, our co-founder Joi Ito wrote a call to arms for Wired about the importance of open data when measuring air quality. There are many air quality monitoring projects, but relatively few are open, which we think will lead to usability, access, and credibility problems down the road. As an example, people often ask us about PurpleAir under the assumption that our projects are similar and therefore complimentary. The people behind the company appear to be well intentioned and they have a useful map. But as PurpleAir’s Terms & Conditions  make clear, it’s not an open project in any sense of the term. This comes as a surprise to many people who who have invested in these devices. You can not legally modify or hack PurpleAir monitors, and the data collected by these devices is owned by PurpleAir, not the customer. PurpleAir is a for-profit company, and if they shut down or are sold to someone else who no longer feels like publishing the data, it can all disappear overnight, and the devices people have purchased could become bricks. As an alternative we’d recommend using and supporting the efforts of OpenAQ, an non-profit organization committed to open publishing. They have a useful map as well. Poorple Air is another interesting project trying to replicate the functionality of a PurpleAir sensor in an open device. This is just a single hack and not a larger project or platform, so it’s usefulness at this point is limited. To understand what you are personally breathing (as opposed to what the air quality of your neighborhood might be) then check out Aircasting/AirBeam project.

Of course our Safecast map shows both our radiation and air quality data, and as we continue to deploy new air sensors they will be represented there as well.

About the Author

Sean Bonner

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Sean Bonner is a co-founder and Global Director of Safecast. Based in Tokyo, he's an Associate Professor at Keio University and an Associate Researcher at the Center For Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab.