How Data Visualization Can Accelerate Environmental Progress

By: Aileen Nowlan
Feb 12, 2019 10:50 AM ET

First published on EDF+Business

The first time I spoke at a conference about air pollution, the venue was right beside a daycare—a well-regarded chain, no doubt with significant waiting lists. But on the outside, the facility was steps from onramps to a bridge and a major highway, where horns blared and buses and trucks idled at the lights.

The pollution around this daycare was invisible, but because there is still so much we don’t know about air pollution, so were many of the risks.

As assistant professor at American University Claudia Persico recently told CityLab, “While there is a literature on how pollution affects prenatal and birth outcomes, there isn’t a lot of research on how typical levels of pollution affect kids who are already born.”

What we do know from innovative hyperlocal pollution mapping efforts is that air quality can be eight times worse at one end of the block than the other. And living at the more toxic end of the street can increase the risk of heart attack or death for the elderly by 40 percent.

But what if we could create traffic maps for air pollution throughout our cities? The sensor and AI revolutions make it possible, and the advent of instant everything and other competing demands on urban space make it necessary. Data analytics and visualization on air pollution and its solutions create unprecedented opportunities for environmental progress, if we get it right.

The power of seeing the invisible

The potential for applying data visualization to tackle air pollution was the focus of a recent “innovation salon” event in New York City. And what surprised me most was that we didn’t discuss data nearly as much as we discussed people.

Sure, we talked about data, to start. Data visualization can help describe observations about the natural world, such as weather patterns or migratory paths for birds. At their best, data platforms even help users to take action based on what they’re seeing, such as locating vacant plots of land or accessing resources to organize a community garden.

Here’s one way our emotional brain comes into play regarding data. At the innovation salon we discussed the importance of people helping to create the data that describes their world. We want to locate ourselves in the data – we immediately look for our home on a map. People already respond to these hyperlocal maps of pollution where they live, work and play in a highly personal, visceral way. Even more, people value and trust data if they participated in creating it. So imagine being able to look at a map of your neighborhood to determine the severity of pollution on your block, and knowing that you helped create insight into the risk for your family of an asthma attack. This is the power of the sensor and analytics revolution.

Further, imagine companies using this data to design, fund, and show impact of the commendable zero-emissions commitments they are making for their fleets. Advocates for clean air policies can demonstrate the value of cleaner technologies, and celebrate victories in reducing the health and economic burdens of air pollution in communities. And if the data shows a neighborhood that is exposed to dangerous chemicals or invisible gases—as many environmental justice communities are today—advocates can use this information to work directly with the biggest levers with the biggest influence, to drive immediate change.

Data visualization to spark meaningful change

At our salon meeting in New York, we noted that one of the most frequent applications of data and visualization in “smart city” systems is to improve the ease of finding parking, which I’ll admit can be difficult here in DC. It also causes pollution when cars circle around a neighborhood searching for a space.

Just fixing parking, however, leaves a lot of value on the table. For example, employers discriminate against people who live far from the job. What is the point of parking if employers won’t give you an interview in the first place? Economic mobility requires mobility, which is unpredictable and expensive in many cities. Many smart minds are investing in e-mobility technology and last mile solutions that connect shared and active transit to bus and rail.

What if we could use data visualization to help solve big challenges like safe transit access? Data and visualizations can demonstrate a shared vision of the future that inspires us to apply that uniquely human superpower, the ability to turn on a dime.