Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
Share My Air converts air quality data into more relatable terms, like the equivalent number of cigarettes smoked.
Recent advances in satellite measurements and portable air sensors have made it easier than ever to track fine particulate matter—the tiny junk that gets in your lungs and causes cardiovascular and respiratory disease. But accurate measurements alone are not enough; you have to be able to interpret them. The World Health Organization guideline for safe air is an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5, for instance, but what does that really mean to the average person?
A new interactive graphic called Share My Air eliminates that confusion by converting real-time air quality data from cities into the equivalent number of cigarettes smoked, time spent in a car with a smoker, and time spent living with a smoker. Kevin Kononenko created the program to communicate how dirty air affects personal health and to encourage people to reduce their local air pollution footprint.
“It’s great for creating an image around it,” Kononenko says. “You can imagine what that looks like, and especially for parents, it can really violate your parental values: Hey, you would never do this to your kid, so why would you want to put air pollution out in the air?”
Share My Air grew out of Kononenko’s bigger project, a web platform called Vivergy, which helps people cut their pollution by scoring their behavior relative to their community. Doing research for that project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he spoke with a bunch of parents who were very concerned about second-hand smoke harming their children. He realized that scientists were measuring cigarette smoke in PM 2.5, just as they measure air pollution. Then it clicked: he could convert the obtuse pollution units into familiar behavioral ones.
The up-to-the-hour air quality measures in the map come from the EPA AirNow database. Kononenko also links to the peer-reviewed journal articles he uses as the basis for the unit conversions.
The results are most striking in comparison to second-hand smoke exposure. Share My Air extrapolates from the last six months to say that living in Washington, D.C., for a year is equivalent to smoking six cigarettes. That doesn’t sound huge, but the projected year of D.C. air also equates to living with a smoker for three months out of the year. Framed in other terms, the last six months of air quality boil down to spending 27 minutes in a car with a smoker each day.
The effort points at the broader problem of communicating public health hazards in ways people can relate to. Kononenko has also developed a simple experiment to visualize air pollution: vacuuming outdoor air through a coffee filter to simulate a day of ambient air quality exposure, then running the same test while burning a cigarette. The filter with a day’s worth of city air looks noticeably darker than the one processing the cigarette. At community events, the coffee filter demonstration has garnered much more attention than the innovative and portable AirBeam sensor he also displayed.
“The AirBeam is high-tech: this is revolutionary, this level of data quality for this low price,” Kononenko says. “And all people wanted to see was that coffee filter, which was done for like 10 cents.”
The success of efforts to get community members engaged in cleaning up their air, then, may hinge on framing those shiny new sensor measures in terms of the cigarette puffs and blackened coffee filters that people can see with their own eyes.