A Fitbit for the Planet? The Fascinating Future of High Tech Air Quality with Kimberly Hunter

What is the air quality at your specific address? Until very recently, no one knew the answer. Aclima.io is the first company in the world to map out air quality in detail by attaching air sensors to Google cars. Kimberly Hunter talks about the fascinating evolution of electronic sensors that are telling us environmental information that we never had before . . . and how this is could even lead to a future world where sustainability is fully automated.

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Katie: Today is a really interesting day to be talking about air quality. Maybe Kimberly can tell us… what is going on with the air quality right now in San Francisco?

Kimberly: Yes, actually, we are experiencing some of the worst air quality we’ve ever had in the Bay Area as a result of fires that are currently occurring up in Napa and in the North Bay. Some days folks have compared it to some cities in China. I mean I’d say we’re lucky we only experienced this once in a blue moon, but in 92% of the world this is a regular cadence of events.

Katie: Is that really true that it’s as bad as it is right now (in San Francisco) in other cities?

Kimberly: You know, the World Health Organization has said that 92% of people are exposed to unhealthy air where they live, so air quality and air pollution is a huge global health challenge that we’re only just now realizing.

San Francisco’s worst ever air pollution during the 2017 fires

Katie: It was really funny, I was at a cafe this morning getting a coffee and this guy just out of the blue shows me his iPhone and he says, “Hey, I’ve just got this app and it is showing . . . look at the bubbles . . showing how bad the air quality is right now in San Francisco. We’re getting a 151”. And it just had one bubble for all of San Francisco — and I thought, ha, that’s because, from what I understand, the EPA only has one monitoring station for all of the city. They’re not very granular. Can you tell me a bit more about why we need more detailed data about air quality?

Kimberly: Yeah, absolutely. This is one of the reasons why Aclima was founded. How do we increase and expand the data about the quality of our environment? And how do we make it more affordable and therefore making it more accessible.

Currently, and let’s just note that the US as a result of the Clean Air Act and regulations that emerged, in the protections that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, as an industrial nation, we were experiencing incredible air pollution in Los Angeles, in New York. It was taking a public-health toll, and so we actually passed laws in the US that set up the current air quality measurement system that is currently in place today by the Environmental Protection Agency. What that is, is a network of regional air quality monitoring stations that can cost between $250,000 to a million dollars to both setup and to operate annually. They are typically large sized trailers that are measuring air quality over a 24-hour period that is then understanding whether a region is in compliance or not. So, our current air quality measurements and data is based on a regional system for compliance with the law.

Most of the world’s populations live in high air pollution cities

What we’re now recognizing is that, particularly even in the instance of the fires right now, we have a couple of monitors and the EPA has a number of sites throughout the Bay Area that help them create the regional look, but what you’re really missing is right now an entire region might be red. Well, where is it actually red in that region? Or where is it green? Or, you know, when we have increased data, can we create high-resolution maps that help us make decisions and guide our way through our life to make healthier decisions? So, that’s really what we what we focused on doing. So, what we wanted to do was taking our system of low cost, small-scale sensors as well as our ability to plug in high fidelity air quality measurement into our system.

How can we collect high quality data at a lower cost? And then translate that into an information in size that people can use.

Image or air quality across San Francisco and Oakland by Aclima.io

Katie: And from what I understand, it’s really important to get that detailed information for air quality because it changes. It can change block by block, not just one for the whole city. It really doesn’t tell you that much.

Kimberly: Yeah, we were actually conducting research over the past year in Oakland in partnership with Google and the Environmental Defense Fund where we were creating a high resolution map of air pollution in the West Oakland Area.

What we really learned was that air pollution is highly variable, that quality of air can shift block by block, and it is highly dynamic. And going back to our initial starting point of looking at a map and seeing it being all red, yellow, or green, that actually is not the case in real time. Our pollution is moving through a city depending on traffic flow, weather, industry and a whole host of factors that can really shift the health of the people in these neighborhoods and the health of the city.

Katie: Yeah, I went to a talk that Aclima did in San Francisco recently, and the lines that are the most red on the map of this air quality monitoring that was done were when the cars had to go up a hill really steeply. Every time I go up a steep hill in my car now, I’m thinking of that. Just an example of how granular data was really get in your mind and potentially facilitate change.

Nobody would know that if we couldn’t see that information.

Kimberly: I think what actually illuminating about the fires right now is that, when I look outside now, I can see some blue sky. I can see across the street from myself, but what we’re actually learning is air quality just shifted to red this afternoon. And that’s because there are microfine particles that are in the air as a result of this fire.

So, Yes! It is the pollution that you experience on hills or with cars idlying, but I think what helps us is when we become more aware of what we don’t see or what we do not know, but the circumstances that can change our air quality, and so that’s when we start to connect the dots, right?

So now, when you see these maps and you are pulling onto the interstate and you see the freeway backed up, you are almost visualizing in your mind what the air quality could be.

And before now, I don’t think we’ve really thought about that realistic detail.

Visualization of street air quality mapping by Aclima.io

Katie: There is a confluence of technologies that just have happened that enabled this very detailed data to be able to come out that wasn’t available even 10 years ago. We couldn’t do this.

What’s happening in technology that’s suddenly making this super granular air quality monitoring, and not just for air quality but for all these other data metrics, that is happening?

Kimberly: When we look at what’s happened over the last seven or eight years, we have the convergence and the emergence of low cost sensors and more affordable technologies for measurement.

We have cloud computing, which enables us to store enormous amounts of data, and to work with that data within the cloud. WE use Google Cloud. Then we have also machine learning and artificial intelligence so that’s accelerating our ability to combine data sets and really extract insights. So, that actually creates the actionable component that is really necessary for change to occur.

This confluence of technologies, as well as through personal wearables, so Fitbits and other devices and technologies that has emerged in the last 10 years, we started to understand what the quantified self is. Understand how many steps I am taking in a day. Log my meals. I can really better manage my health and personal well-being as a result of these technologies.

And we really see Aclima as been really a Fitbit for the planet. So, we can use these environmental data and deliver it to different stakeholders to enable decision making that improves both your own health as well as the planet’s health.

Katie: I was really excited to see in your bio, that you wrote, “The Fitbit for the Planet” because I’ve been using that in a lot of my content as well. It’s like, “Right on! It’s happening! FITBIT FOR THE PLANET!” We are all starting to get there now.

I just want those listening to us to understand what these projects are in terms of mapping the air quality. From what I understand, you mapped all air quality by street in both Oakland and San Francisco. And did you put air quality monitors in Google Street cars? Is that how it was done?

Google street cars and the Aclima monitoring system

Kimberly: Yes. We actually started mapping the indoor environment, so Aclima actually started deploying our technology inside of buildings to quantify the environment that effects health, productivity, and comfort for people. And then, in the last four year, we took that sensing platform and shifted it to mapping the outdoors.

We started in 2014 in Denver, where we equipped three Google Street View Cars of our sensing platform. There was actually a research project happening called Discovery Queue at the time, and we were actually research and development partners with the Environmental Protection Agency so we actually do research with the EPA on how do we advance small scale sensors in this next generation of measurement.

As part of that next iteration of the project was coming to California, so for the last two years we’ve been driving the Bay Area, Los Angeles, the Central Valley and part of that work was also extensive mapping of West Oakland. What the California driving has enabled us to do is continue to better understand how do we map using vehicles and how do we create methodologies that enables us to representatively sample a city, but also then test that technology to ideally scale it in the future.

Right now, what we’ve been doing for the last two years is had side by side package of small-scale low-cost sensors next to reference equipment that is creating a truth for the sensors to learn from.

For the last two years, we’ve been developing this mobile sensor package and testing it with equipment to train the sensors and have them understand how to operate. That package is what we want to scale to more vehicles. And the idea is, let’s go to the future world, where we are able to take this mobile box and install it in additional vehicles, in school buses, mail fleets or city buses.

What you have is, through all of these different vehicles driving around in a city, we can have a real time network of measurement occurring across a large amount of space as opposed to a single unit of measurement in one place. What we see is the value of having a heterogeneous network, because we do sensor networks inside of buildings, can do outdoor stationary as well as mobile.

We really see a world where we are going to have trillions of sensors out in the world one day. And environmental sensors will effectively be deployed in a way that we have this real time data set that’s telling me the best way to walk, to pick up my dry cleaning, or, if I am going on a bike ride, what areas to choose during that time of day in that area. And I think that’s going ro be the way we can translate environmental data into this environmental intelligence that we see really helping drive the future.

Katie: Yes, so instead of that guy showing me his phone this morning at coffee that just had one dot for all of San Francisco, what people will be able to see in this future is the ability to go right to the specific address, the specific street and be able to get this real time feed of what the air quality is like in that very specific area. And you’ve done those maps, you could see them for all these whole districts.

Kimberly: Yeah, I think that’s the high-resolution maps. So, it depends on the stakeholder, right? For cities, they want to understand where the hotspots are and where are areas in which transportation infrastructure can be adapted or improved or optimized to reduce pollution, especially when we are thinking of new policies for managing the urban environment.

Having data to demonstrate when air quality is improved by these policies, we’ve really been missing that. Our cities and our buildings had an absence of data.

And when we can actually have a feedback loop that enables us to understand the impact of the solutions we are implementing, we can make our resources go a lot longer and a lot further.

For a city mayor, this is where that data can really help inform how to manage a city to help improve air quality. And on the flip side for a citizen, we want to see environmental intelligence embedded in our day to day lives, so when I am pulling up my Google Maps to go to Starbucks, not only can I choose the least polluted route or the most healthy way to get there, I can also potentially see what the pollution is like at Starbucks or when it might get worse in the day. So, it’s not just real time, it’s actually more to be able to feed models to ensure more predictive and better understanding of both present situations but also future. So, right now, the models are data starved and that’s why we have a more regional perspective. But with increased high quality data, we can help improve these models and create more predictive tools to better manage air quality.

Katie: Have you had any wins yet? You put the data out there. Having the data is one great big step, right? But the next step is making sure that the data actually turns into change. Have you had any wins? For you to be able to say, “We did it! We did it!”

Kimberly: Yeah, we’re in early days. We’ve been driving the collection and understanding the applicability of this data in different situations. But one thing I can share from the California driving, and we are going to be sharing more actual data stories snapshots from California in the next coming weeks which I’m actually excited about, but there was a situation where I was meeting with a Chief Sustainability Officer in one of the cities that we had mapped and showed him that there was actually a methane hotspot where there is a city bus refueling station. This was just briefing him on our on-going efforts. Here are some things we are seeing. Is this the sort of things cities would see and find of value? And then he whipped out his phone, and took a photo of that slide while I was sharing it.

And he was like “You know, I’m meeting with our Department of Transportation later, and it will be really helpful to show them this data because we are pushing for 100% electric buses.” And if we can demonstrate that our natural gas buses are still creating greenhouse gas emissions, that is a data point that helps me drive the conversation towards different solutions.

Covering the earth in environmental sensors

Katie: So in the possible future, do you think Aclima will be able to deploy this type of technology and data around the whole world? Do you see that happening in the future? Every city? Everywhere? No matter where you are, you can see it.

Kimberly: Yeah, that is our mission! That’s why we were founded. That is why we are structured the way we are! We are designed to really operate at scale and figure out how we can bring our technology into more cities, more buildings, more communities. You know, when we look at working with folks like Google, they have this global infrastructure, and they see the value of this kind of data. And so, that is our work, in terms of looking for partners that want to expand the ability to collect this data as well as folks that really want to use it.

So yeah, we are on a big ambitious mission to wrap the world in environmental data and are working everyday towards that.

Katie: What is the hardest thing? Is anyone against you? Like for example, the oil industry . . . do you consider them to be an enemy? Or is there something that is making it hard? What is the biggest barrier?

Kimberly: I think what we are seeing in the current paradigm with respect to fighting climate change is a lot of effort from companies in the private sectors to do their part, particularly as some national leadership has been taken in the back seat. We are having a lot of conversations with folks that see an enormous amount of value in this kind of data and how it can help them improve their systems, how it can help them better manage their facilities, or take in to account what they can do to play a positive role.

Our challenge is how can we move faster and make this more affordable and accessible.

We’ve got some great partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency and others. I think that’s been part of Aclima’s foundation is that we really see ourselves growing through partnership and collaboration.

For me and my role at Aclima, I want to be engaging this different stakeholders because I think we want all want to see a healthier planet and a healthier environment for our children to thrive, for our families to live in. And so, how do we have more conversations around how this data can unlock that reality in the future?

Reducing air pollutions also requires that we reduce or stop burning gasoline and coal

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Katie: One thing that I find really interesting about air quality is that, when you hit two birds with one stone, when you make the air quality better, you also reduce the carbon dioxide emissions because the same stuff that makes bad air also make CO2. And air quality is not as politically polarizing as carbon dioxide is.

Do you see an exciting future where you can really help support renewable energy and electric vehicle use? By saying, “Here’s another reason why fossil fuels aren’t the best thing.”

Kimberly: As I was saying earlier, we see our data actually supporting these complimentary energy choices and the next generation of policies to manage climate change. And you’re right. The same emissions that we are putting in the air, we’re putting into our bodies. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the quality of our environment affects all of those and it affects us. And if we can provide more intelligence on the air we breathe and help people make better decisions, then we are working towards a more shared reality where we value those things and we value the planet which provides them to us.

Katie: You have a background in political communications, I bet you can really see this data essentially bringing technology and policy together. Often they say they are two different things, like what the government does and legislation, and there’s the Silicon Valley over there. This is a case where they really need to be married together but you can use this information to help enable really good quality policy.

With your familiar background, can you really see those two domains come together?

Kimberly: Absolutely. That was one of the reasons when I first met Divida, Aclima’s CEO, back in 2014 and heard what she was working on, the light went on immediately for me. It’s that this sort of data can be transformative in our policy making. I believe that technology has an incredible opportunity to bridge divides, to create shared context, to really transform how we manage our planet and how we can relate to each other.

And that’s why I came to San Francisco was to take that public policy background, the change I wanted to see in Washington, DC, and see how we can use technology to help accelerate that when we are able to show maps, and show people the visualizations of what our air looks like, and to policy makers that means they can make smarter decisions. We can all make smarter decisions.

I get really excited about the complimentary aspects of how this data informs policy, how it helps support everyday people in making better decisions, and, ultimately, how we come together as a society to combat climate change. And think about what we want to be in 500 years, because I think we still want to be on this planet. In order to do that we need to figure out how we want to manage our resources more smartly.

Katie: Although, I know a lot of people who desperately wants to go to Mars or the Moon, I am like, “Well, we got to get this planet working first before you get to do that. Maybe that a little bit out of order!”

Kimberly: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of different ways of looking at it. I think that our planet still has a really great shot. I believe that we as people have a lot more agency and a lot more of a voice in this paradigm than we think we might. And when you can have this kind of data, when people are factoring in air-quality to the homes they buy, the economic decisions they make, maybe that’s when we start to externalize putting value on these external resources. We as a society can start to place more value on our air.

Katie: Overall, this seems to be an incredible new shift happening all over the world where we are able to use technology to get great insights into nature, in to the biosphere, and really use this information to solve the world’s biggest problems.

I was writing an introduction to my book today, and I just summed it up with this whole concept of the Mars thing. When you work in sustainability full time and in the environment, it becomes your whole world. And what for? And I was thinking that once we ironed out the kinks to solve a lot of these problems, we are really opening up the world for what the next step of humankind will be. Like, what happens when we can solve these air quality issues, these climate issues, these social problems that we have? It is an incredibly exciting time with all thisl technology coming together.

And then, once we have reached this cybernetic earth with all this information, what would be the next face for human civilization? What’s in store for us next after we solve these big things?

BIG QUESTION, you have to answer it!

Kimberly: I have to speculate. The future depending on how you look at it can have a million different possibilities. Yeah, I think that in the future when I think about what is next. If we think about our cities of the future being automated and humans are not manning the fort of the control tower anymore, I am looking forward to having environmental data actually helping to automatically manage our cities in sustainable ways.

We can use technology to automate some of these more sustainable decisions and take humans out of it. We know the data that can drive our transportation systems in the future, or our navigation system, or even how our buildings and our homes are being managed in terms of air quality.

So, I am not sure of what the future has in order. I think it is an exciting time.

I am really excited of what environmental intelligence can translate in terms of how we live our day to day lives.

Katie: This is one thing I always asks to everybody I talk to. If there’s just one thing that you can achieve in your career, one thing that could change that sort of unleash and sort off kick the log of all of these other things, what would that one thing be?

Kimberly: I’d love to see more technologists and incredibly smart folks applying their time and energy to technologies that are going to help us manage the planet and make the world a better place.

I think that there’s a lot of opportunities in that field, a lot of value in putting time and energy in to solving these big challenges. So, as excited as I am about autonomous vehicles, or social platforms, I want to see a Manhattan project focused on the planet. I want to bring in the smartest and best and brightest folks.

And let’s come together and figure out what are the ways technologies can really solve, and how can those technologies support people in solving the problems.

That’s one of the reasons that brought me to San Francisco. I am excited to be at Aclima where we’re doing that every day and would love to see more doing the same!

Katie: Yeah, it is really wild when you move to Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, Hacker Houses, and the technology scene. I was kind of shocked working with incredibly brilliant people. They were saying, “Come over here, we’ve got amazing problems to solve! Come on. come on. Don’t worry.” They’re maybe working on a technology project that isn’t really going to have that much impact. And you see so much genius and potential here and there, kind of waving the flag, “Come over here! Amazing stuff!”

Kimberly: We will keep waving the flag saying, “Come over here. Come over here.”

Katie: I totally share that with you. The more we can do to inspire very talented technology people to join in on this incredible movement about environmental data and feedback loops and all that. That will definitely a big win and exciting thing to achieve.

So, I think we’ve probably talked through all of the most exciting things about Aclima. It was really wonderful talking to you .

Thank you so much for coming on the show. Hopefully, we can meet in person one day as we both live in San Francisco. We have a lot of air pollution right now.

And what can people do to support Aclima or find out more? People listening might be interested and working in cities and government departments who might be interested in having their city mapped as well.

Kimberly: Just come online and check us out a bit more. You can visit aclima.io, which is our website. Check out our blog, which has a rich amount of resources around what we know and what we are learning and who we work with.

And shoot us an email if you are interested in learning more. For cities, we are actively in conversation with folks who are bringing in environmental intelligence to their city. If you are in business or if you are also looking to work at mission-based technology company as well, check us out!

Katie: If you are watching this on YouTube, you can see that Kimberly has a beautiful view out the side of her warehouse window style office.

Thank you so much for coming on the show Kimberly. Thank you to everybody for listening, It has been a very exciting conversation about this incredible trend that’s going on in environmental data.

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Katie Patrick

Katie Patrick

Environmental Engineer | “Fitbit for the Planet” Designer | Author of How to Save the World | Learn how to gamify sustainability at http://katiepatrick.com

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