Wearables: data-crowdsourcing devices may drive air quality improvements

By January 07, 2015

Wearable devices are now being designed to measure air quality, with a view to creating a database of the most polluted areas and helping to combat air pollution.

The wearable electronic devices on the market to date have concentrated on providing useful functionality for assessing your own health and analysing your personal biometric data in order to help you adopt a healthier lifestyle. As the Quantified Self movement grows steadily, sales continue to rise and UK mobile telecoms sector market research company Juniper Research estimates that there will be around 57 million wearables in use worldwide by 2018, up from just 19 million today. Now, hard on the heels of personal health, wearables manufacturers are beginning to address the environment at large and a number of new startups are focusing on gathering and analysing environmental data.

One of these is Netatmo, the company behind the first personal connected weather station, which revealed its June wristband at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January 2014 and launched the product on the market in the spring. This designer accessory measures exposure to the sun and a UV sensor tells its wearer when s/he is getting too much exposure to the rays. At the time, June was a pioneer on the ‘enviro-tracker’ wearables front, but now a number of rival devices that provide environmental metrics have been developed.

Adapting your behaviour according to the environment

The most recent ‘green wearables’ initiative is the Tzoa device, the brainchild of Vancouver-based Clad Innovations, which recently ran a Kickstarter campaign touting its discreet device, which can be worn on your clothing, or fixed for example to a backpack. Tzoa measures all main aspects relating to air pollution – sun-exposure, temperature, UV and humidity – and is also equipped with a customised sensor that analyses particulate matter suspended in the air, notably the fine PM 2.5 particles which are particularly dangerous for the respiratory system and may be carcinogenic. Similar functionality is provided by the connected device and smartphone app Breathe, which has been developed by British designer Samuel Cox. Another product, AirBeam, is a low-cost, wearable air monitor that connects to the open source platform AirCasting and maps, graphs and crowdsources your pollution exposure in real time and shares this environmental data with other users. Clarity is a lightweight key-ring designed by students at the University of California, Berkeley for people in China and other areas which have very high levels of air pollution.  

All these devices are intended to gather quantifiable data that will make invisible dangers visible to the user and the wider network. Equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and micro-controllers and communicating via Bluetooth with smartphones using a dedicated app, they are able to assess air quality and advise users on how to adapt their behaviour in real time. This might involve various actions such as taking a different route to avoid polluted areas, airing a room at the right moment to improve air quality, or trying to get enough sunshine during the winter and not too much during summer.

Wearables facilitate data crowdsourcing

Perhaps the most innovative and valuable feature of such wearable devices is their ability to pull together a mass of data that has been ‘crowdsourced’ from multiple users. Wearers’ data statistics at local, national, and even global level can be centralised and shared in order to raise general awareness of areas with high levels of air pollution. “We really felt that a piece of the puzzle was missing (…) the story of what was happening on the outside of our bodies (…) and the impact it has on our well-being,” explains Tzoa co-founder Laura Moe, who is highly critical of the general lack of public information relating to our environment. However, in order to build a global air quality database, people first of all need to be convinced that this data is useful. Ms Moe points out that “if you believe that you are what you eat, then you must also believe that you are what you breathe!” She argues that only when information on air quality becomes readily available will it have an impact on society.

Once citizens are able to look at pollution maps, this is likely to bring it home to government bodies that they need to do more to protect the environment. In fact the European Commission caused some consternation recently when it announced it was dropping a planned Clean Air regulatory programme in order to focus on economic growth and jobs. Now that air pollution has been rising to worrying levels, as illustrated by the ‘fine particle’ alert in Paris last spring and a statement from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which described Beijing as a city almost uninhabitable for human beings due to its high pollution levels, environment-trackers could well have a bright future in the wearables market.

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