Big data is showing up in all kinds of unexpected places. The most obvious business applications for big data, like using customer information for marketing, have become mainstays of the field. However, at the same time, one of the major hallmarks of big data has been the creativity of its users. More and more people are starting to use big data to answer a broad variety of questions outside of the traditional business bottom line.

Measuring quality

Nowhere is this more apparent than in environmental science. On the one hand, it is clear to everyone that having clean air and water are important goals. On the other, it isn’t easy to measure or track the quality of natural resources. For example, air quality varies considerably both over time and over distance, so it isn’t easy to get enough measurements of quality to assess the level of pollution of any given area. But to understand which pollutants matter the most for air quality and how to reduce pollution effectively, it is crucial to have as detailed data as possible.
That is where Aclima comes in. Aclima is a big-data startup that is attempting to solve the measurement problem. The innovation is in Aclima’s approach: to put sensors that measure air quality anywhere and everywhere. That way, health outcomes related to pollution like asthma can be matched to local pollution and air quality measures. The sensors stream data continually, and the size and scope of the sensor deployment project means Aclima deals with Twitter-scale amounts of data.

Air Quality and Big Data

Furthermore, each sensor is more than just another eye. It also acts to check and corroborate other nearby sensors. In fact, much of the work Aclima does is network analysis and graph theory for  Hadoop excel. Visualizing the entire network of sensors and translating that information into a detailed view of air quality is a revolutionary use of big data. The process is already bearing fruit. Aclima found that building interiors tend to be just as polluted, if not more so, in comparison to the outside air. That changes the way engineers need to design HVAC systems and plan building layouts.
There is quite a bit more that Aclima can do with their sensors. For example, right now the company mostly places sensors in stationary outposts. However, it would be easy to deploy the sensors on moving cars. That would allow a city government to send sensors all over their jurisdiction in just a few hours, giving them a complete picture of the current air quality. This is an unprecedented level of detail that arms officials with detailed data about how different parts of their city experience pollution. It could not only give information about the present but also provide clues about where to place more stationary sensors for the future.

Making Changes on a Local Level

Creating a large network of unobtrusive sensors that measure air quality is the first step to a truly comprehensive air quality policy regime. Linking the data to local health outcomes would do even more to show which areas need more help and what kinds of pollutants are causing the most problems. Aclima also carries out experiments. For example, during public transportation strikes and shutdowns, the company can measure how much air quality declines as a result of more cars on the road.
Aclima is currently working with Google to deploy their sensors. The future holds more promise still, as the growing trove of data reveals more about how pollution works and what governments can do to improve the health of their citizens. This is a very different direction from mainstream uses of big data, but no less useful or innovative.

 

source: Vincent Stokes