Air pollution on move

Science of quantifying exposure to air pollution is not prefect but cities are innovating ways to improve their air quality management via localized solutions.


Urban air pollution is largely mobile as it majorly comes from local traffic. It is well acknowledged that people on roads and sidewalks are inhaling toxic fumes multiple times higher than what the pollution monitoring stations record.

A recent study by the Senseable City Lab of MIT tracked an individual’s exposure to air pollution as we go about our daily routine. Focused on New York City (NYC) the study uses mobile-phone data to track people’s movement to provide deeper understanding of exposure to pollution in urban settings.

Exposure track

The traditional way to look at pollution is to have a few measurement stations and use those to look at pollution levels. But that’s sensitive to where the [measuring] stations are. If you want to quantify exposure, you also need to know where people are,” says Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

The MIT study paints a very different pollution map of NYC (see the cover image). For instance, Staten Island has poor air quality but its residents who travel to outside for work are exposed to lesser pollution compared to residents of some cleaner neighborhoods. If air pollution has to curbed from public health perspective then findings of the MIT study are suggesting a need for new approach to air quality monitoring and enforcement.

Innovating solutions

Multiple platforms like have improved public awareness about spatial-temporal nature of air pollution but I would like to highlight two innovations from two drastically different cities that are specially promising.

Delhi recently launched an app ‘Hawa Badlo’ (change the air in Hindi). “The App aims at an inclusive participation of citizens in reporting incidences of leaf and garbage burning, building and construction dust and unpaved road dust, and thereby makes them part of the city’s fight to curb toxic air pollution,” says the official press release. It essentially maps and connects the frontline workers (enforcement officers) to the citizen helping to decentralize response to a decentralized problem. Building in accountability in whole air quality management system of the city.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam, is developing “the world’s first product that offers free internet in return for clean air.” This hybrid between air quality monitor and WiFi router disguised as a bird-house not only communicates the threat but also provides the immediate incentive to take action against pollution sources.

It is critical to inform people, especially with respiratory problems, if they are about to walk into a toxic plume. Both innovations discussed here do that and are striving to push action. Currently, they leave a lot to be desired but are a step towards addressing the findings of MIT study. I believe they are signals to a new era of air quality management, a highly wicked problem, that is driven by local action empowered by technology and data science.