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The role of environmental sensors in a smart city


Urban air quality is the top environmental risk factor for premature deaths in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation. In the UK that means 40,000 lives a year ending prematurely through cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses etc, which is ten times more than those who die in traffic accidents. Children can permanently lose up to 15% of their lung capacity due to high levels of air pollution, figures claim.

AirSensa monitoring unit

AirSensa monitoring unit
Photo credit: Techstyle Europe

By the year of 2030, road traffic - a primary source of air pollution in the UK - is predicted to have increased by 43%. Another issue is the fact that these environmental factors are not being measured properly. Although London has its Air Quality Network, which is actually one of the world’s best, it actually measures something that is not very useful. While it measures ambient air quality around each of the 70 monitors, any result is based on an average measurement across zones, which is clearly not so accurate.


Deliver Change, a non-profit organisation backed entirely by private sector funding, is running its biggest project so far: AirSensa. CEO Jonathan Steel addressed the audience of RE.WORK IoT Summit in London about solving air monitoring issues. His company’s mission is to install thousands of scientifically accurate, relatively local air quality monitors that will build a rich model of air quality across the capital.

This system is created for anyone who lives, works and spends time in London, as it provides user-friendly visualisation of the collected data that allows people to make low-pollution travel plans, track their daily exposure etc. The information can also be an important resource for schools, providing contextual learning opportunities through analysing real-time data.

Free of charge big data input can be of great use for local government, its policy makers and planners, too. It can be a great starting point for any serious government measures concerning environmental issues, where decisions should be based on quality information from systems such as this.

Since having this idea, AirSensa has met many barriers. As it turned out, the market for local sensors is actually non-existent, so they had to make their own sensors, which was pricey and time-consuming. Another issue was finding suitable sites: “It is about schools and businesses saying ‘I don’t mind you measuring how bad the ecology is where I am’, said Steel”.

AirSensa plans to include 10,000 air quality sensors at schools, commercial buildings and public infrastructure across Greater London and 19 other UK towns. The data will be granular enough to illustrate air quality down to individual street level.


Paraphrasing from Cedric Price, Dan Hill from Future Cities Catapult shed fresh light on the rising ubiquity of technology when he spoke at the Open Data Futures Conference. “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?” This is a question that companies and city governments could benefit from asking themselves more often. People’s needs should always be a primary concern.

When it comes to air quality sensors, we can see great potential. However, Dan also saw flaws in London’s Air Quality Network. The existing sensors are not visible enough because they are placed in boxes. They measure air quality parameters rather than display data for people who could use that information. This is a real limit to their usefulness. Data cannot be of value if it is not used to answer to people’s needs.

Future Cities Catapult has launched a project called Sensing London, bringing together London park managers, local authorities, schools, Intel’s Collaborative Research Institute and a handful of other businesses to find out how can air quality data be used to help make our cities healthier.

The easy-to-install and mobile Strawberry Smart Bench is solar-powered street furniture that provides environmental sensing as well as being a mobile-device charger. “These metrics, the pieces of data that come from the sensors, will be very useful to map a picture of what our future cities will look like. Cities will benefit greatly from the sensors in Strawberry Smart Benches” said Russ Shaw, Tech London Advocates.

So many parties and subjects are involved in research and development around these technologies that we can be really optimistic about how future cities will respond to our needs. One day, cities will hopefully use data and technology to improve every part of urban life, including our health. That day might not be so far in the future.


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Author: Nevenka Rangelov

Nevenka is a student of journalism and communications at Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade. She’s planning on pursuing a career in communications and marketing. Ever since attending educational program “Public Policy Academy’’, she’s had a lot of interest in entrepreneurship and start-ups. An important part of her life on faculty is her activity in the Students for Liberty organisation, where she’s in charge of creating creative content. She practises yoga and loves skiing.

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Strawberry Smart Bench

Strawberry Smart Bench is easily installable and movable street furniture powered by solar energy, that offers charging for mobile devices, environmental sensing, free emergency call and local info in public spaces.


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