CHINA’S AIR QUALITY is notoriously bad.
How bad? It has slowed photosynthesis in plants and possibly impacted the country’s food supply. One scientist describes conditions as “similar to a nuclear winter.”
Earlier this year, Beijing’s concentration of PM 2.5 particles—those fine enough to penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream—reached 505 micrograms per cubic meter, and the World Health Organization recommends a safe level of 25. Forty percent of global air pollution-related deaths—1.2 million in total—have been linked to PM-2.5 pollution in China, according a 2013 WHO report.
This means it’s vitally important that the Chinese keep a close eye on the quality of the air around them. But reliable data can be difficult to come by. Just last week, when several major heads of state met for an important regional summit in Beijing, the government reportedly blocked air pollution data provided by the U.S. Embassy from being displayed on local smartphone apps and websites.
It’s no small problem, and David Lu aims to solve it. Together with seven other students at the University of California, Berkeley, Lu recently created a new kind of air pollution sensor dubbed Clarity. This keychain-sized gadget lets you constantly track your personal exposure to air pollution via a smartphone app. But it’s also a way of crowdsourcing much broader studies on air quality—not only across China but throughout other parts of the world as well.
Basically, Lu and company will pool data from everyone wearing the device, and when enough of these gadgets are deployed, Lu says, they can feed pollution maps of any city. “Our mission,” Lu says, “is to empower people to collect information about their environment and take care of their environment.”
The effort is part of a larger movement to address environmental problems using the power and flexibility of internet-connected sensing devices. In the past, this included such gadgets as WNYC’s cicada tracker and Air Quality Egg. But the advent of the smartphone—and the new breed of wearable technology that connects to these phones—has unchained these types of sensors. As Lu strives to monitor air pollution in other parts of the globe, a new wearable called AirBeam aims to do much the same thing here in the U.S.
Made in China
Born and raised in Shanghai, David Lu enrolled at Berkeley two years ago as an international student, double-majoring in environmental engineering and atmospheric science. But the idea for Clarity didn’t arise from the classroom. It grew out of discussions with two other Berkeley students, Hannah Hagen and Deepak Talwar, and in February, they launched a company to make the device a reality.
They found a friend of a friend who could design a sensor. They tracked down a software engineer who could help build the smartphone app and a cloud service for housing the data. And after initially gestating the idea inside a startup incubator on Berkeley’s campus, they spent three and a half months refining the device in China as part of an organization called HAXLR8R.
The device clips onto your bag, your belt, or your bike, and every once in a while, it sucks up a bit of the air around you and uses an optical sensor to count individual pollutant particles, including PM2.5, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen dioxide, and ammonia. At the same time, thanks to separate sensors, it measures temperature and humidity.
Via the smartphone app, you can check your exposure whenever you like. But the device will also suggest ways to lessen your risk. One day, it might tell you to put on a protective mask. Another, it’ll suggest that you skip your outdoor exercise and stay inside.
The device is intended for users who live not only in China, but other badly polluted places, such as India and Mexico. Lu and company plan to launch a marketing campaign in China by May, and if all goes well, they’ll ship to consumers by August. The price tag will likely be somewhere between $50 to $75. It’s way cheaper—and more portable—than other efforts that have gotten attention in the past, including AirBeam.
Once these devices are in the wild, Lu and company will start pooling all data on its cloud service. In essence, when the device senses a big change in the concentration of pollutants, it will trigger additional software that makes use full of the device’s power to get an accurate reading.
The system will create a stamp of the date, time, geographic location, and air quality data, and when it’s connected to the net, it will upload the data to the cloud service. This information wouldn’t be associated with a user’s identity, but collectively, it can provide a better indication of air problems across large geographies.