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Anyone living in a town or city will likely have seen Google’s famous 360-degree camera-enabled Street View cars traversing roads to capture everything from roads and junctions to shops and parks. But the internet giant has also been using its vehicles to capture a range of additional data, including air pollution.

Google first announced it was working with environmental sensor network Aclima back in 2015, with a view toward mapping Californian air quality. This followed a few months after a similar effort was unveiled for Denver, and a year after working with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) on an initiative for mapping natural gas leaks beneath the streets of Boston, Indianapolis, and Staten Island.

Almost two years later, Google and partners are revealing the first fruits of their air pollution mapping endeavor by making some data available to scientists, though they must request access.

Google said:

At this early stage of our experimental project, our goal is to make this data as accessible as possible to help the scientific and academic communities. However, we may use some discretion as to its wide distribution in order to safeguard against misinterpretation of data analysis and interpretation.

Through the EDF, however, the general public can access an interactive map of Oakland that shows the presence of three pollutants that emanate from traffic, among other sources: nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and black carbon.

Users can zoom in and click to see more information on why there may be a particularly high level of pollution in a specific place.

Above: Zoom-in of black carbon in Oakland, where you can see block-by-block air quality.

In terms of how this data could be used, city planners and organizers could prioritize projects involving improving residents’ health where it may have been affected by air quality.

“These insights can help community groups like the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project get a better understanding of local air quality and assist regulators like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in identifying opportunities to achieve greater air quality improvements,” said Google Earth outreach manager Karin Tuxen-Bettman, in a blog post.

It’s worth noting here that many cities already have static air quality sensors installed; however, they are typically not widespread and usually don’t collect data at street-level where people breathe. This is one of the problems Google’s Street View cars was able to fix, with moving vehicles able to capture much more data across the city — the company said it captured around 3 million measurements across 14,000 miles traveled in a year.

“This is one of the largest air quality datasets ever published, and demonstrates the potential of neighborhood-level air quality mapping,” continued Tuxen-Bettman. “This map makes the invisible, visible, so that we can breathe better and live healthier.”

Sensor networks are increasingly being used to capture all manner of data from around the world. London-based startup OpenSignal, for example, has created a giant crowdsourced laboratory simply from having its apps installed on millions of smartphones, and can track things like mobile network coverage and even weather.

Cities, too, are increasingly turning to data gathered from ride-sharing services to help ease road congestion and inform city infrastructure projects.

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