Tracking air pollution in a city can be an inexact science, typically relying on a set of fixed monitors and computer modeling to paint a general picture of air quality in the area. Researchers have now explored a way to offer block-by-block, highly localized data, and it involves fitting out Google Street View vehicles with air pollution monitors as they roam around town.

Scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund, Aclima and the University of Texas (UT) at Austin got together with Google to equip its Street View cars with devices to measure air pollution in Oakland, California. Tracking air quality in this 78-square-mile (202 km sq) region is usually handled by three stationary monitors, which leaves some uncertainty around the pollution in between.

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The Google Street View vehicles, conversely, drove more than 14,000 miles (22,500 km) and gathered more than three million unique measurements at various times of the day, week and year across 2015 and 2016. The result is what the team describes as the most spatially precise datasets of mobile air pollution measurements ever recorded.

This data was then collated and turned into an interactive map of the area that tells the tale of varying pollution levels across the city's streets. It shows where hotspots of different types of pollutants have formed and even offers explanations as to why, drawing on intel from local community leaders with "deep experience" in pollution issues.

High levels of nitric oxide for example, which is strongly associated with heavy traffic, were detected along the city's freeways. Heavy duty trucks and industrial activities were also identified as major sources of pollution in the city, with one particular hotspot clouding an area that includes homes and a children's playground.

"The new mobile technology allows us to measure air pollution levels where people actually breathe the air – at street level," said Joshua Apte, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering at UT Austin, and lead author of the study. "By allowing us to understand how air pollution varies between and even within city blocks, this technique will help policymakers and the public make smarter choices about how to reduce pollution and improve public health."

You can check out the interactive maps online, and you can hear from the researchers involved below.

Source: Environmental Defense Fund

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