Air quality. It’s one of those things we can’t see as we go about our everyday lives, but something that has a huge impact on our health and well-being. Thanks to the Plume Air Report, an app that’s letting city-dwellers know exactly what they breathe in outside, you can now plan your day to ensure minimum exposure.
Based in Paris, Plume Labs is concerned with one thing only: making sure we all live healthier lives by helping us avoid harmful exposure to air pollution. The idea was sparked by its founders’ personal interest, recalls Romain Lacombe, CEO of Plume Labs.
“I was running around the streets of Paris, preparing for the Paris marathon, and couldn’t get any information on the impact of pollution on my health.” At the same time, his co-founder David Lissmyr, who had just become a father, was wondering what pollution meant for his young son.
Together, they decided to take the matter into their own hands and give people access to information on what is in the air that they breathe.
According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is now the world’s leading environmental health hazard – killing seven million people every year. Bolstered by this statistic, Lacombe and Lissmyr launched the Plume Air Report in September 2015.
Know what to expect to plan your outdoor activities
Plume Air Report is a free app that – in real-time – tracks the quality of the air that we breathe. It has three main features.
First, it helps users understand the impact of major air pollutants – like nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter – on their health. Second, it sends alerts and personalized recommendations to help people minimize exposure.
But perhaps the best feature of all, it also provides hour-by-hour forecasts for your city. Want to take the kids for a bike ride? All you have to do is check the Air Report, and you’ll know the best times to head out, making sure your children are avoiding any unnecessary overexposure to air pollution.
How the app works
The Air Report collects more than half a million data points from over 11,000 live air pollutant monitoring stations, made available by “governments, scientific networks, and regulatory agencies around the world in order to track live levels of pollution in major cities,” says Lacombe.
But in order to predict what pollution levels will be in certain cities, the team also had to develop complex algorithms that can forecast how air quality will change throughout the day. Factors taken into consideration include changes in the weather, as well as urban patterns.
There are 300 cities in 40 countries that benefit from the Plume Air Report – from Paris, Stockholm, and Berlin, to Mumbai, Shanghai, and Tokyo.
“We add cities as quickly as possible whenever we can find authoritative sources of public data,” explains Lacombe. “Our users have been extremely supportive and instrumental in helping us identify new cities that we can add to the app.”
A strong impact, even before the public launch
The idea behind Plume Labs and its Air Report was so potent that, even in its pilot phase, it was having a profound effect on the way a city authority approached pollution.
“Our app had a strong impact in Paris,” says Lacombe. It brought to light that last year, the city’s pollution levels had topped those of Beijing for an entire day in March. “It shocked Parisians so much that the city’s air quality board initially tried to censor the news. Eventually, it had to answer calls from the population to start acting.”
The issue of pollution was now high on the agenda, and the French government went on to halve the number of cars allowed on the roads in Paris for a whole day.
In March 2016, Plume Labs took to the air in London. Strapping backpacks with lightweight sensors to ten pigeons, the Pigeon Air Patrol was let loose in the English capital’s skies for three days, measuring levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Londoners could tweet their location to @PigeonAir and one of the pigeons (named Coco, Julius, and Norbert) would tweet back the level of pollution in that borough.
“The best way to reach global audiences is to surprise them,” says Lacombe. “And I don’t think many of us would expect to see pigeons flying over a city to tweet about pollution!”
As well as highlighting problem cities, though, the Air Report can also spotlight the cities with the world’s cleanest air – like San Francisco – showing other cities what can be done to improve the air their citizens breathe.
Plans for the future
Right now, Lacombe and his team are working on a personal air tracker in collaboration with Imperial College London.
“We’ve recruited 100 volunteers in London to take on a crowd-sensing project, which will help researchers study how we react to environmental information to change our habits,” says Lacombe.
If the data from the test can help to inform public health and environmental policymaking – even better.
“No one knows what the far future holds,” resumes Lacombe. “But, we work hard to make tomorrow a better, kinder, more sustainable place and we hope that technology can help all of us to live healthier lives – in a cleaner urban environment.”