A breath of fresh air is harder to get these days, thanks to increasing pollution clogging our atmosphere. But the two-year-old startup Plume Labs has a solution that could potentially help people breathe easier: Flow, a portable, AI-equipped air quality tracker–designed in tandem with Frog–which debuted this week at CES.
In a report issued in September 2016, the World Health Organization estimated that 92% of the world’s population now lives in areas that exceed safe levels of particulates–ultra-fine matter like dust, soot, and carbon that gets lodged deep in our lungs and poses the greatest health risks. And it’s not just particulates that spark concern. Greenhouse gasses, hazardous chemicals, and natural pollen and mold are problematic as well. Worsening air has sparked an industry of products targeted at consumers who are concerned about inhaling pollution. Face masks are a familiar sight in cities like New Delhi, Beijing, and other places shrouded in a cloak of visible pollution.
But bad air isn’t always apparent to the naked eye, and it’s rarely monitored at a granular level.
“The current paradigm for air-pollution monitoring is broken,” says Romain Lacombe, Plume’s founder and the former head of innovation and development for the French prime minister’s Open Data Taskforce. “Most cities track air quality with no more than a dozen government monitoring stations on rooftops or the curbside, but these stations are complex to operate, hence often under maintenance, and air pollution is so micro-local that air quality indexes can be strongly biased by station location choices. This strategy requires expensive investments yet cannot answer the most basic air quality policy question: What are constituents breathing? We spend 90% of our time indoors, where this outdoor monitoring strategy simply fails, and that exposure during the time we spend outdoors strongly depends on activity levels, transportation modes, and itinerary choices.”
Instead of monitoring pollution at an environmental level, Plume’s product, called Flow, collects data about an individual’s surroundings throughout the day, recording the hyperspecific conditions nearby at any given moment. The device could create more accurate pollution maps than those made with existing monitoring systems.
“With Flow, we’re aiming to put environmental information in the hands of the people,” Lacombe says. “Better information on the air we breathe is a key step on the journey toward solving the global air-pollution crisis.”
Here’s how Flow works. The device–which is about the size of a flip phone and has a leather strap that you use to attach it to bags–has sensors that monitor particulate matter (including PM 2.5, the most hazardous particulates), nitrogen oxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds, temperature, and relative humidity in the area immediately around a user. These metrics offer a more exact estimate of the air conditions someone is breathing in, as opposed to city-wide air quality indexes, which typically average stats gathered from a handful of monitoring stations.
People can see the pollution levels Flow detects via a mobile app–compatible with iOS and Android–or via 12 LED lights on the device. Users press a button on the device to activate the lights. If they shine white, that means the air is clean. The more polluted the air, the more red the lights become. (The healthiness level is based on WHO recommendations.) Moreover, the LEDs are arranged like a clock face–and in another display feature, each one signifies the average air quality a user has breathed for the past hour. At a glance, users can get a sense of their pollution intake during a 12-hour period.
Data collected from individual Flow units contributes to what Plume calls a “live air map,” which shows pollution levels at a given moment via Flow’s app. One of Plume’s existing products, a pollution-forecasting app called Air Report, forms the basis for the map, and Flow improves upon the technology by inputting real-time data detected by the wearable sensor.
Plume’s environmental artificial intelligence feature lets users know where the cleanest air is in a city and makes predictions on when it’s healthiest to be outside using machine-learning models that predict pollution levels. For example, Flow’s app could suggest waiting until a specific hour for users to open their windows to ventilate their homes. People can opt out of the live air map feature if they don’t want to share their data–though if they opt out, they won’t be able to access the live air map–but the spirit of the product is to create benefits for many through the pollution information it records. “We’re trying to build a balance between individual contribution and collective good,” Lacombe says. “If you want to benefit from what other users share, it only makes sense to contribute.”
Unlike the food we eat and water we drink, we have very little control over the air we breathe. Moreover, outdoor pollution levels are highly dependent on climatic conditions, like heat and wind. While Flow might be able to disclose how unhealthy air quality is, there’s relatively little individuals can do to improve it. Depending on what your daily obligations are–work, school, etc.–and how much pollution varies in a city, it might be unavoidable. But if you’re deciding on when it makes sense to head outside for a run or a walk, and you have some flexibility on timing, the app and sensor might have immediate benefits. Plume’s Air Report app resonated with athletes, parents of young children, and people with sensitivities to air pollution, like those with asthma. With Flow, the company is targeting active people living and commuting in urban areas who might be keen on tracking their environmental health just as they do their fitness or sleep. Think of Flow as a Fitbit for your lungs.
However, Plume is also playing the long game when it comes to Flow’s potential impact. “Somehow we’ll have to solve the health crisis of air pollution. It won’t happen overnight, but you have to build demand for change through data,” Lacombe says. “Putting a sensor in a user’s hand is more powerful than just having an app about pollution forecasting. Because it makes you more informed, it helps drive these shifts to more sustainable behavior and policies. We hope it will make people more aware of pollution, but we don’t expect users to become activists themselves. During the design process with Frog, we interviewed users and many hoped this data could be used by someone to affect change. If we can establish Plume as a trusted source [for pollution data], we can hopefully see [our] data play a role in climate-change policy.”
Flow is in beta now and plans to begin preorders for the retail version in spring. Pricing has yet to be determined.