Clearing the Air Pollution: Cooperative Innovation for Environmental Justice

Everything we are and everything that happens to us moves through a thin blue layer of breathable air, just a few thousand feet thick, that encompasses the Earth. From afar, it’s easy to understand that every breath we inhale connects us to the planet and each other. That’s why the emissions that are creating air pollution and changing our climate are changing us, too. 

The pollution we emit goes straight back into our lungs, affecting every organ in the human body through every phase of life. Exposure to air pollution is linked to negative health impacts including diabetes, asthma, and increased risk for serious complications from COVID-19. The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people prematurely die from air pollution each year, and recent studies put that number even higher.

The Disproportionate Impacts of Emissions

Systemic racial injustices have led to disproportionate environmental burdens for communities of color. Over hundreds of years, we’ve designed our communities — the places we live, grow our families, go to work and school — in ways that segregate us by race and by class. Redlining, racial covenants, and other policies result in emissions sources being located either in or near communities of color. This has a multi-generational, profound impact on the community’s health, educational opportunities, access to health care, and access to economic opportunities. And, because pollution manifests locally, it can be persistently worse in different areas of the same cities and towns. It’s become very clear to those of us fighting environmental racism that where you live determines your exposure to pollution. Case in point: devastatingly, Black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution, and this  story is similar around the world. 

In the absence of policies that support the reversal of environmental injustices, communities of color have been left to bear not just the health impacts but also the burden of making the case that their communities are more heavily impacted by pollution. Community science evolved from this need to prove the existence of biases. 

We now have the tools to fix environmental injustices, and must do the work to get it done. Without environmental justice at the center of climate action, there is no path forward. This path starts with better understanding of pollution and the ways it affects us. 

Cooperative Innovation in the Public Interest

Environmental justice can be supported by the use of data. For instance, air is three dimensional, changes over time, and it varies across space. Science has shown that one city block can be 800% worse than the next. Emissions come from many sources and a person’s proximity to them affects what they breathe. Yet, until now, air has been measured at only a handful of distributed locations if at all. Community sensing — the ability to sample air quality in specific communities or blocks — driven by local concerns, has played a critical role in advancing awareness and local advocacy. It gives people a way to understand both where pollution is coming from and who it’s affecting. To date, however, investment in more granular information has been limited, and there’s a bigger story waiting to be revealed. This is where public interest technology and its practitioners come in. 

Government customers pay for subscriptions to the measurement data and the analytics software enabling us to provide communities free access to hyperlocal insights with powerful web-based tools. With our data, for instance, government regulators like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District as well as local and state officials are able to use the data to pinpoint hotspots, target interventions, enforce existing policies, develop new policies, measure outcomes, benchmark, share best practices, and iterate from there. 

The quest for air quality equality — and an overall reduction of air pollution — demands a new cooperative approach to problem solving. It calls on all of us to bring our complementary capabilities, resources, and respective wisdom together to innovate for a better future. This includes community members, governments, environmental justice organizations, non-profits, scientists, engineers, technologists, and entrepreneurs, all of whom can innovate together in service of public interest. Doing so gives us a cooperative advantage that moves our society forward. 

Policy, legislation, and regulation is gaining momentum in this direction. We’ve seen the ratification of environmental justice laws across several states in the U.S., all aiming to measure, understand, and reduce environmental pollution in highly-burdened communities. Cooperative innovation in partnership with communities is essential to assessing and delivering on these new environmental justice laws. Private sector companies getting involved as well. For instance, I co-founded Aclima to make both emissions and their impacts visible at the human scale and to shed a light on the disparities of those impacts.   

The policy changes we see on the horizon require us to transform the way we manage air pollution and emissions. We need to improve the way we measure it and understand it, manage and mitigate it at the hyperlocal level, rooted in community. 

Our technology measures and analyzes air pollution and greenhouse gases block by block, filling a critical gap in hyperlocal environmental data. Today, our fleet of sensor-integrated vehicles along with our partners’ fleets make up the world’s largest mobile environmental sensor network. We have deployed our sensor networks in 14 countries and more than 150 cities. The largest and densest network is in California, where we cover nearly every block of the nine-county region in the Bay Area. Our sensors are also deployed globally with fleet partners like Google Street View.

The platform is designed to measure air quality block by block at scale, and to maximize local benefits through job creation. Driven by employees hired from the communities we serve. Our fleet takes measurements multiple times on every block during a sampling period. We sample air through specialized intakes, analyze samples with on-board sensors, and continuously upload geotagged data points to the cloud. Grounded in science, we work to ensure the highest levels of data quality at every step.

Customers can analyze and visualize these billions of data points in context with other data layers in our software-as-as-service product Aclima Pro. We developed our integrated environmental intelligence platform in collaboration with environmental advocates and scientists in academia, industry, and government, including through a 10-year Collaborative Research and Development Agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

By measuring multiple pollutants at once, from block to block, we can better understand the sources that contribute to what we breathe, so we can better manage them. The platform integrates this data with data from stationary sensors and other sources building a complete picture of air pollution: where it comes from, how it changes over time, how it’s distributed, and who it affects.

But measuring pollution alone is not enough. 

Building for Impact by Building for Understanding

All of this data must add up to understanding that mobilizes action across communities, governments, and industries. By understanding where emissions are coming from, who they’re affecting, and how much, we can diagnose problems, prioritize and take action, and track our progress over time. Analyzing hyperlocal air pollution in the context of other factors such as demographics, climate risk, and land-use, helps to further understanding. This environmental intelligence has applications across public health, climate action, and environmental justice pillars.

In addition to developing a better understanding of air pollution exposure, innovations for environmental justice helps ensure t novel technologies are designed to meet new and emerging calls for accountability. By tracking and targeting resources and interventions in highly burdened communities, we improve the transparency and efficacy of resilience efforts. Examples of resources can include new or improved filtration, public transportation, electrification, urban tree canopies, truck rerouting, and infrastructure deployment.

As cities, states, and countries commit to bold emissions reductions plans, it is essential for public interest technologists to prioritize environmental justice and ensure accountability to impacted communities. Accountability starts and ends with measurement. Advocacy for and adoption of modernized approaches to environmental monitoring is a critical part of the equation.  

By putting the latest science and technology to work for and with communities, we can meet our collective ambitious goals for cleaner air. Innovating for environmental justice requires cooperation and trust-building between communities, governments, environmental justice organizations, non-profits, and entrepreneurs, who must work together to protect public health, advance equity, and accelerate climate action.

Davida Herzl is co-founder and CEO of Aclima, a Public Benefit Corporation dedicated to catalyzing bold action to protect public health, reduce climate-changing emissions, and advance equity. Working with environmental advocates across all sectors, Aclima has pioneered an entirely new way to measure and understand air pollution and greenhouse gases, block by block and around the world.