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Users Can See San Francisco Air Quality in Real Time

Shair is a real-time, air-quality monitoring tool that measures particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and several other pollutants, subsequently making the findings easily understandable for all users.

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Checking air quality online is becoming as easy as checking traffic. Shair, a real-time air-quality mapping platform, is now measuring particulate matter and other pollutants in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

Shair is developed by the Ramboll Innovation Lab, a division of Ramboll, a global engineering and architecture firm. The platform shows hourly air-quality readings across the San Francisco region, as well as up into Sacramento, and it is free to access.

Over time, the map also offers added insight into pollution sources, and how it moves around.

“You can start to explain more, in real time,” said Julia Luongo, founder of Shair and an air-quality managing consultant at Ramboll.

“The idea is that by doing this every single hour and updating it every hour, and doing it at a higher resolution, you kind of uncover all of these assumptions that may be baked in. It can help steer the course of, ‘where is the next mitigation needed?’ ‘Or the next study needed?’” she added.

The map is color-coded from deep blue — clear, healthy air — to red, which shows an area of higher pollutant levels. Hover your curser over the area to see actual readings of pollutants like particulate matter or nitrogen oxide, found in areas of high vehicular traffic, or other areas where fossil fuels are burned.

The air-quality data used by Shair comes from several sources, namely air-quality sensors, which are increasingly common, deployed by government agencies as well as private or nonprofit groups. Groundwork Richmond, a community organizing group in Richmond, Calif., worked with Shair to share its air-quality sensor data.

“They do the rest of the amazing math that we can't handle, all in the interest of generating near real-time mapping tools so that people can see the air when it matters instead of in a board meeting 90 days after they have been poisoned,” said Matt Holmes, executive director of Groundwork Richmond.

Readings can show particulate matter in the number of micro-grams per cubic meter. The map shows particles that are 2.5 micros or smaller.

“It’s telling you how much of those particles are in the air. You can use that number to compare to different health standards and guidance from say, the EPA or from the World Health Organization,” Luongo explained. 

Shair also has a version of the tool intended for a “more technical audience,” allowing for a deeper dive into more details related to the various sources contributing to the pollution in an area.

“Lets say you have a wildfire going on. The model understands that that’s something we call ‘background’ because it’s coming from outside of the city, and coming in,” said Luongo. “So we can make estimates to understand those different source contributions.”

The aim is to expand the air-quality mapping tool beyond the Bay Area, through building relationships and partnerships with other organizations holding air-quality data.

“We’re hoping to be able to expand this mapping to other regions across the U.S. and really globally. But it’s definitely something we want to work closely with those agencies to make sure that we get the latest underlying data,” said Luongo.

What makes the Shair tool particularly useful is its ease of use, particularly for casual monitors, who may not be scientists, but have a vested interest in knowing the quality of the air in their neighborhood.

“If you are a modeler, of course you want to dig into model assumptions and data, and that could be really overwhelming for somebody else,” said Luongo. “So we’re hoping that what we’ve made public here is really intended for people to just start to wrap their heads around, what areas am I seeing that always seem to be at higher concentrations than somewhere else?”

“Or maybe I’ll just be able to keep an eye on what’s going on near my house, and over time you start to learn more about these dynamics, and different areas, and so we really want to make sure that it’s useful to the person that is using the tool,” she added.  

Close looks into air quality in the Bay Area are also being taken up by Aclima, an air-quality monitoring tech company that has deployed roving sensors, attached to low-emission cars, traveling block-to-block. The project is a partnership with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Air-quality measurements taken during the stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 crisis from mid-March to about mid-May showed significant drops in pollution levels. Data measuring air quality from March 20 to April 9 showed particulate matter pollution down 41 percent and nitrogen dioxide down 34 percent, statewide, according to Aclima analysis of data from the Air Quality and Meteorological Information System.

Editor's note: A change was made to reflect that Aclima is partnering with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.