We are living in an era of obsessive tracking: Tools like FitBit and Strava track our workouts; apps like Headspace check in on our mental health. But Romain Lacombe, a French engineer and data specialist with a background in climate research, took a look at the market and saw a gap: There was no way to track our exposure to pollution.
To Lacombe, that presented a problem. Air quality has a huge impact on health and well-being: In 2015, ambient pollution, in the form of smog and particulate matter, was the fifth leading cause of mortality worldwide, resulting in 4.2 million premature deaths.
“What people don’t realize about pollution and air quality is how local it is,” Lacombe says. Unlike the weather, he adds, air quality isn’t consistent across a city; it fluctuates block by block. Busy roads, for example, will have worse air quality than quiet, car-free streets due to emissions from traffic-jammed cars, and the blocks around a coal-burning plant or factory will often contain unhealthy levels of particulate matter in the air. The siting of factories in lower-income neighborhoods of color has become a rallying point for environmental justice advocates, who argue that corporate interests are damaging the health of people who live near the facilities and often have no control over where they are located, but still must cope with the consequences.
While the discrepancies in air quality are most tangible and severe when analyzed across socioeconomic lines, they exist in every community. Lacombe founded Plume Labs in 2014 to give everyday citizens access to highly localized air-quality data, both to motivate people to seek out routes through their city where the air is clearest, but also to encourage them to take action to advocate for better clean-air policies. Lacombe is no stranger to using data to advance public good–previously, he headed up innovation and development for France’s open data initiative. This year, he was named to the class of 2018 TED Fellows for his work on the startup.
Plume Labs launched with a single product: A free app called “Air Report” that uses a mathematical forecasting model to deliver hyper-localized air-quality reports. Users can check the app to see how particulate matter and ozone levels will fluctuate in their city over the next 24 hours, and plan accordingly. Over 100,000 people worldwide use the app, Lacombe says, “and we’ve heard from people that it’s helped them to change their daily routines.” A pop-up notification warning of excess smog, for instance–a reading of around 115 on the Air Quality Index–will inform a user that it might be best to postpone marathon training until the air clears.
The second phase of Plume Lab’s air-quality tools, Lacombe says, is still in progress. It’s called Flow, and it’s a hand-held, personal air-quality tracker that will pick up data from your surroundings wherever you use it, and feed it back into Plume Labs’ larger data analytics system. “Over time, the personal data will help us make our forecasts and maps even better,” Lacombe says. At a pre-sale price of $139, it’s not exactly cheap, but one could imagine the utility: If a nonprofit fighting on behalf of a community whose air quality has been negatively impacted by a coal-burning corporate facility, they could use this tool, and the rest of Plume Labs’ data set, to make their case.
That kind of larger-scale advocacy is Lacombe’s ultimate hope for the Plume Labs, which has, to date, raised around $4 million in seed funding, mostly from European tech investors. “Most of the work we’ve been doing has been around helping individuals take action for themselves,” Lacombe says. But he’s hopeful that the data will eventually empower both advocates and policymakers to take air quality into stronger consideration. Cities like New York are looking to pass a congestion pricing measure to limit the amount of traffic in the city center, could use this kind of data to show the harmful effects of too many cars in not enough space. “The long-term vision is that the more information people have about the air and how it affects their health, the more support they will be able to generate for policies that reduce pollution,” Lacombe says.