Gadgets inspired by China’s air pollution educate consumers to create change

Yann Boquillod has been living in China for 17 years, but he wasn’t worried about air pollution until he had kids.

That’s why he founded AirVisual last year, a social enterprise that makes smart indoor air quality monitors and aims to build a community of users who use their devices to map air quality around the world.

This is all to inform consumers about the air they breathe, which is important because it helps people protect themselves. On another level, awareness may even lead to change in policy and a desire to do something about the root causes of pollution.

Research shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution across the world. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution can cause stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory disease.

“If you want people to protect themselves, then you have to give them information,” says Boquillod.

Yann Boquillod with the AIrVisual Node (photo by Catherine Lai)
Yann Boquillod with the AIrVisual Node (photo by Catherine Lai)

Consumer air quality monitors give people more information than they can get from apps or by following readings from official stations. Official station readings are not in real time, from a different location, and they only give information about the air outside, not inside.

With increasing awareness of air pollution in China, there’s a lot of interest in consumer products. TechNavio forecasted the Global Indoor Air Quality market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.3% from 2013-2018. Liam Bates, the founder of Beijing-based startup Origins, which makes air quality monitors and air purifiers, says sales are basically doubling every month.

Richard Payne, a teacher raising his family in Beijing, swears by his portable air quality monitor. After he got it, he found out that the air quality indoors is usually just as bad as it is outside.

“I realized that my apartment is not anything like as sealed as I think it is…even if you have an air purifier, it’s fighting a losing battle if your windows aren’t sealed.”

Bates said some customers only realize after buying one of their portable air quality monitors that there are different standards for measuring air quality, and the device inspires them to look up the different standards and particle counts to understand what they are breathing.

Boquillod says giving consumers air quality information can help them understand that global warming, which is closely tied to air pollution, does have a direct impact on them.

“People think it’s not their problem, but if you tell them it’s harming their health, then people start to think twice.”

AirVisual's air quality map (screenshot from AirVisual site)
AirVisual’s air quality map (screenshot from AirVisual site)

Education is even more important in parts of the world where there is a dearth of information. On AirVisual’s map of air quality data points, there are clearly holes where Africa is and in parts of Asia and South America.

Unlike other efforts to map air quality like the World Air Quality Index, AirVisual says they are going beyond data from official stations to build a crowdsourced effort to monitor air pollution by enabling users to add data about the air quality where they are. It is doing this everywhere except in China, where sharing non-official data is illegal. To help fill in the gaps in information, AirVisual provided Phnom Penh with its first outdoor PM 2.5 monitoring station as part of its Indiegogo fundraising campaign.

Hopefully, giving people information will bring changes to policy like how data provided by the US embassy, the first air quality data available to the public in Beijing in 2008, may have influenced the Chinese government’s policy towards air pollution.

Bates has seen this work in terms of smaller-scale policy changes. For example, schools have changed their policy of letting kids play outside based on readings from Bates’ product. He has also seen clients use the technology to comply with government regulations.

“We have a client in Shenzhen at a port using the sensor to make sure that they meet their own emission standards,” Bates recalls.

Whether policy changes take place or not, it seems that consumer products are at least educating the public and helping people become more aware of what they’re breathing.

“Oh, I learned all sorts of things about air pollution,” says Payne, “I’m very much more aware now how to protect my family.”

(Feature photo by Nicolò Lazzati on Flickr)

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