Google to Map Smog Levels Neighborhood by Neighborhood

Google is hoping the new feature, which will start small with trials in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the Central Valley, will give the public information necessary to combat harmful emissions.

by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News / September 29, 2015

(TNS) -- Millions of people use Google maps to find directions and dodge traffic jams. Coming soon, they'll be able to discover something else: how much smog is in their neighborhoods.

A San Francisco company that builds air pollution sensors announced a deal Monday to put its equipment on Google's Street View cars -- the vehicles that drive all over the world photographing detailed images of roads and buildings. Starting in the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Los Angeles, the devices will measure smog levels and post the information on Google maps, providing the public with a detailed look at which communities are the most polluted.

Eventually, if the system is successful, the readings could affect real estate values, highlight health risks around schools, hospitals and parks and even advise cities where to plant trees or synchronize traffic lights to reduce smog. They also could be paired with health data to spark regulators to tighten pollution standards in problem areas.

"I'm a mother, and if I had an asthmatic child I would want to know what time of day to take my child to the playground to avoid poor air quality," said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, the program manager for Google Earth outreach.

"I'm a biker," she added, "and if I want to bike to work I would want to know how to choose the healthiest route for my trip."

The sensors, made by Aclima, a privately held firm founded in 2007, will record and report everything from levels of soot to nitrogen oxides to greenhouse gases in more detail than the stationary air pollution monitoring equipment that government agencies already operate on top of buildings.

"We see a day when hyper-local air quality will be as accessible as the weather," said Davida Herzl, CEO of Aclima.

The Bay Area has already been measuring smog for years. There are 31 air monitoring stations, located from Napa to Gilroy and Los Gatos to Concord, operated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, a state agency.

Not only is the information used to issue health warnings on particularly smoggy days, but if areas fail to meet federal health standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires them to put in place tougher local rules limiting smog from cars, factories and power plants or risk losing highway funding.

At first, the experiment announced Monday will start small.

Aclima sensors have been fitted on three Google Street View cars that have been collecting data since July. The sensors, located inside the vehicle, require a small opening to be cut in the top of the car, where they measure a wide range of air pollutants at very precise levels.

"We are time-stamping and geolocating air," Herzl said. "This is very technically difficult to do."

Starting next year, cars will be on the roads in Los Angeles and Central Valley, two of the regions with the highest levels of smog in the nation. Data from the Bay Area and the other two locations also will be posted starting in 2016, Herzl said, to Google Maps and to Google Earth Engine, a public platform that collects satellite images for scientific research into topics such as Amazon deforestation, the retreat of glaciers and the growth of cities over decades.

Some questions remained Monday. For example, it was unclear how often the cars will take readings in each neighborhood, or how up to date the smog readings will be.

Air pollution regulators generally reacted favorably Monday to the news.

"All of us are excited to have these kinds of measurements," said Eric Stevenson, director of meteorology, measurement and rules for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco.

"We have a pretty large network of air monitoring stations throughout the Bay Area. But we don't have a lot of measurements in between them," he said. "So this technology gives us the ability to get a better understanding neighborhood by neighborhood what the differences are."

One hang-up so far: Air regulators want to make sure that the measurements from the mobile sensors are comparable to measurements they are taking, so there is no dispute over the exact level of air pollution in each area. Technicians in Los Angeles with the South Coast Air Quality Management District are closely studying the equipment, he said.

Over the past 40 years, smog levels in most U.S. cities have fallen significantly. Tougher environmental laws have led to cleaner vehicles, more efficient industrial equipment, mandatory smog check rules and bans on leaded gasoline and high-sulfur fuel.

In the Bay Area, for example, in 1974, there were 57 days when the air failed to meet federal health standards for ground-level ozone, a main component of smog. Last year, there were just four such days, despite the population growing from 4.6 million in 1970 to 7.5 million today, and the number of cars roughly doubling. But more needs to be done, said Stevenson, particularly on soot, which can cause asthma and heart attacks.

"There are huge financial paybacks in lower health care costs for every percentage that we reduce concentrations of air pollution," he said.

©2015 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.