What is Air Pollution and Why Should we Care?
Air is always around us, whether it be indoors, outdoors, at the park or at work but as an invisible thing to the naked eye, the effects it can have on human health aren’t always immediately obvious. To ensure people are living and breathing as safely as possible, ambient air quality is something which needs to be observed on a regular basis.
Air quality puts into consideration the volume of gases such as ozone (O3), nitric oxide (NO), hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulates, in ambient air which contributes to the 4.2 million global deaths every year. In the UK, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) are two of the major outdoor air pollutants for which concentrations in cities and towns are constantly under scrutiny.
Where Does it Come From?
NO2 is a result of the combustion of fossil fuels which is used for fuel in transport, in homes for heating, or for activities such as food manufacturing. You may find high levels of NO2 at busy roads with lots of traffic, or during colder temperatures whilst indoor heating is being used which contributes to elevated concentrations. The higher the levels, the more harmful to human health - evidence shows that long term exposure can lead to health problems including inflammation of the airways and worsened lung function and development, particularly in children.
Particulate matter is a is a mix of human made or naturally occurring solid and liquid droplets which are found in the air. Some particles are large enough to be seen, such as dust or dirt, but others are so small they can’t be seen unless under a microscope. Although particulate matter comes in many different shapes and sizes, PM1 PM2.5 and PM10 refer to the size of a particle in diameters. PM2.5, also known as fine particulate matter, is another of the UK’s main components of urban air pollution. The pollutant is emitted directly from a source such as burning wood, diesel vehicles, or at construction sites where activities generating dust are carried out and is found at built environments, traffic heavy areas, and industrial sites. The health impacts of PM2.5 include cardiovascular and respiratory risks especially to those with pre-existing conditions as exposure leads to worsened symptoms of problems like asthma and COPD.
The dangerous health risks which come with unsafe levels are just some of many reasons as to why air quality needs to be monitored and strategies identified to reduce heightened levels of pollution, and this is where Smart Cities come into the picture.
What is a Smart City?
A Smart City is a relatively new method of collating data with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) which can be used for a range of different initiatives. Smart Cities have been described as a type of framework made up of ICT to develop, deploy and promote sustainable development on both small and large scales to tackle growing challenges in urban areas.
Within the framework is a network of connected technologies, such as smartphones, parking sensors and air quality monitors, which transmit data to cloud based IoT (Internet of Things) systems delivering information about cities and towns. Combined data from these technologies is assisting improvements in environment, transport, utilities, buildings and safety. By providing a holistic view of how cities behave for systems integrators, local authorities, businesses, and citizens, this allows for better decision making for the way they interact, live, move and breathe .
How is Smart City Technology being Used Today?
The types of technologies that feed into a smart city cover a number of different areas, one being smart energy. Smart energy is focused on managing energy use in an efficient way for residential and commercial buildings within a city. Within a smart city, tools with smart technology can be used to distribute and generate energy in a cost effective and economical way. For example, smart meters enable people to view their energy usage and costs, allowing decisions to be made about how best to reduce wastage and cost. Alternatively, smart LED streetlights distributed in cities and towns use less energy and save money.
Another example is smart transportation, which allows for optimised transport, logistics and parking decisions. This is done by utilising intelligent transport system devices such as traffic models and air quality sensors with variable messaging signs (VMS) signs to communicate issues to drivers like road and lane closures, congestion, and elevated air quality levels. Smart traffic lights with built in cameras are also used to monitor and improve traffic flow by switching light sequencing in a way that reduces vehicle emissions. In addition, smart transportation may include connected buses with bus stop schedules so that passengers receive live journey updates. Essentially, smart transportation brings together a number of factors and data to enable efficient, cost-effective, time effective journeys which are better for the environment.
Smart and connected infrastructure is another piece of a smart city which enables better planning and informed decisions within cities and towns. By using sensors to collect data for areas like energy, public transport and public safety, smart infrastructure enables planners to monitor, measure, communicate and act based on this information. Collated data can be used for decision making processes, for example using transport data to understand whether implementing new road networks would reduce emissions within the city. Smart infrastructure can also be used for future planning, like identifying the most cost effective and sustainable method of introducing energy efficient buildings within an urban area.
Utilising Air Quality Data for Meaningful Smart City Insights
Understanding air pollution within a city is an integral part of ensuring people are living in an area with clean air. Air quality data integrated as part of a smart city technology enables us to visualise pollution, and consider the factors impacting pollution levels in our cities.
For example, air pollution information can allow transport companies to influence how traffic moves around a city to reduce the negative impacts of vehicle emissions on air quality. Project Network Emissions/Vehicle Flow Management Adjustment (NEVFMA), utilised our full air quality monitoring product suite providing real-time pollution data that was integrated with Aimsun’s traffic management system. At congested and hotspot areas in Oxford, Aimsun’s traffic model predicted 4 different traffic scenarios, allowing for them to evidence the most effective plan for managing traffic flow in a city whilst also reducing vehicle emissions. This initiative has also supported work towards Oxford developing the world’s first potential zero emission zone (ZEZ). By reducing emissions, the dangers met with unsafe air quality are lowered to enhance the lives of thousands.
Air quality data can also be used alongside additional sensor data to understand links between air pollution and external factors such as traffic or footfall at car parks and in city centres. Our new distributor, Proximity Futures are working with UK local authorities by deploying Zephyr® networks in cities. Integrating sensor data with their online dashboard, Intelli-Sense will enable councils to identify real-time air pollution levels in their city and understand how one dataset influences the other. Using this information, informed decisions can be made by those involved to optimise air quality levels and reduce the related risks.
When air quality levels are high, messages regarding concentrations and alternative routes can be displayed to motorists using air quality data. Coventry City Council use Variable Messaging Signs (VMS) and a network of Zephyr® sensors integrated with Siemens Mobility Stratos traffic management system to do this. When air pollution levels are elevated, automatic alerts are triggered which sends messaging to VMS signs around the city to inform drivers of the concentrations and alternative routes. Through integrating sensor data, this smart city initiative means NO2 emissions are reduced, keeping the city safe from the adverse effects of unsafe pollution.
Lastly, air quality data can influence smart cities in urban areas by helping to identify, trial and test urban designs. Combined mobile and static sensor measurements and modelling data can be integrated with urban planning models to understand whether current infrastructure and road layouts allow traffic to flow smoothly, reducing accelerations which limit the volume of pollutants emitted by car engines. Data can also be used to understand whether a new road layout, such as the introduction of a cycling lane along a main road, could encourage individuals to travel by bike, improving air pollution in the area and the health of the community.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
By introducing air quality technologies like that of Zephyr® sensors and MappAir® into smart city strategies, it means air pollution levels can be understood throughout large scale areas and collated data can be used to identify the most effective pollution lowering initiatives. Once these are implemented, these initiatives help to improve ambient air quality, subsequently lowering a complete city or towns pollution exposure to unsafe pollutants.
Ultimately, using air quality data within a smart city helps to keep thousands safe from the adverse impacts of air pollution, reducing the risk of developing adverse health impacts such as diminished lung function, asthma and COPD. The more air quality networks and initiatives put in place, the cleaner the air and the more lives saved.