Feature: Why data is key to air quality monitoring

In his latest column, Nick Ruxton Boyle, Head of Environment at Marston Holding explains why understanding the data is key to creating better air quality.

I have been thinking about data a lot this year, which might surprise you. The amount of data we generate these days is phenomenal as just about everything these days is digitised.

I was talking to a colleague recently about data storage and I was fascinated by the amount of data we create, store, organise and try to make sense of.

We got talking about petabytes, and I had to Google the term as it is not one I had come across before. For your information, a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes and would need 1,000 large home computers to store this amount of data.

My interest was piqued and if you are interested 1,000 petabytes is an exabyte and 1,000 exabytes is a zettabyte. A zettabyte is so large that it would take one billion large home computers to store!

Anyway, what has this got to do with air quality you might say, well quite a lot as it happens.

Across the UK air quality data is being collected by traditional and modern methods. We have our national network of automatic urban and rural network stations managed by DEFRA, and probably hundreds and thousands of diffusion tubes used locally for a wide range of purposes.

All this monitoring is creating data, alongside the new digital low-cost hyper-local monitors that many towns and cities are installing outside sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals.

This data is key for transport planners, like me, to justify, and validate public investment in sustainable transport and travel schemes. The data is crucial in selecting the most viable local solution and understanding the intended and unintended consequences.

The concept of a smart city has been around for many years now and I often discuss with city clients what it means to them. Most cities these days are smart in that they collect and utilise the data they generate to improve things for their residents and businesses.

Air pollution is complex and the data that is generated needs to be presented and translated into something that those who want to use it can understand. Most air quality improvement projects require some sort of behaviour change from the public and in order to elicit this, the public needs to understand both why they are doing it and the consequences of them not changing behaviour. Data, and in particular data presented and translated is how this can be achieved.

As we all become social scientists and are used to receiving and decoding data [next slide please Sir Chris] I challenge you to go onto your local council’s website and see what air quality data they have and publish. I often wonder who looks at the data, apart from me of course, and who it is published for.

Nick Ruxton-Boyle, Director of Environment at Marston Holding


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