Google Street View Cars Map Air Pollution for Impact and Engagement

Companies are taking a number of approaches to address the issue of air pollution -- from Coca-Cola's billboard that absorbs pollutants to IBM's Green Horizon program to improve air quality management in China. Yet, it can oftentimes be difficult for consumers to grasp this invisible threat. Now one major company is harnessing an existing resource to help individuals understand the pollution around them every day, and how small decisions can ladder up to greater impact.

Google's Street View cars have traversed the globe to map the world's roads but now the vehicles can be used to map something else: air pollution. Google has partnered with startup company, Aclima, NASA and the U.S. EPA to equip three Google Street View cars with sensors to test air quality as part of its Google Earth Outreach program. The initiative, piloted in Denver where cars spent "750 hours on the city's streets and collected 150 million data points," is now moving on to San Francisco. The program aims to raise a "new level of environmental awareness" so residents and decision makers can have a better understanding of the air pollution around them and what they can do to prevent it. The program also hopes the information will help foster a larger dialogue around the improvements that can be made to air quality. "If you're a mother of an asthmatic child, you could plan your day using this kind of information," said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Google's lead on the Aclima partnership, in a recent NPR interview. "If you're a local government, you could look at this kind of information and say, 'What and where can we make some changes on a small scale to have some good impact?'" While the program is starting out small, it could have major implications, including helping urban planners understand where to plant trees or how to improve traffic congestion.

This new partnership takes Google's existing asset, the Street View car, and turns it into a "mini mobile lab," providing more information than ever before about how air pollution moves on a "block by block, street by street" basis. This powerful information can help to make air pollution more tangible for individuals, and in turn trigger a conversation on what can be done to prevent it. As Google's Tuxen-Bettman put it, "We're excited to finally make the invisible visible."

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