Google Street View allows us to take a (virtual) look at almost any street in the world. Soon enough, it might also make us smell them. In partnership with Aclima, Google has been equipping its cars with various sensors designed to measure urban air pollution. Or, as Aclima CEO Davida Herzl put it: “It’s kind of like we’ve given the cars a nose”.
Pollution is a major problem in many cities around the world, not least in the USA. But environmental researchers are usually restricted to static measurements that can't tell them much about how pollution varies from street to street across a city. This collaboration gave Aclima researchers, the Environmental Defense Fund, the University of Texas and the Google Earth Outreach Program an opportunity to discover where exactly pollution is concentrated in the modern American city.
Google has been running these projects across California for a couple of years now, in Los Angeles and San Francisco among other places. The latest project, based in Oakland, ran for a full year and logged 15.000 miles while gathering three million measurements. The team, led by Dr. Joshua Apte, published the results in Environmental Science & Technology and made an interactive map available to the public.
Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a Google representative, explained the potential applications: “If you’re a mother of an asthmatic child you could plan your day using this kind of information. If you're a local government, you could look at this kind of information and say, 'What and where can me make some changes on a small scale to have some good impact?' And if you're a scientist you can obviously use this kind of data for models and to help supplement the data that you're already collecting”. She concluded saying that the team was “excited to make the invisible visible.”
Navigation devices can already warn us about heavy traffic and suggest alternative routes; in the future this technology could also point us towards the itinerary with the freshest air? And this might bring other innovations: could algorithms soon tell us the quietest way to our destination, the brightest or the most picturesque? What other senses will we outsource to new technologies? Only time will tell.