Can data visualization help clean up urban air?
With Earth Day approaching, here’s a deep dive on our recent work with the Urban Flows Observatory, helping to turn air pollution data into an empowering tool for policy makers.
Across the city of Sheffield, hundreds of unseen sensors are at work, monitoring how energy and resources flow within the urban environment. This low-key feat of ambient technology is the work the Urban Flow Observatory at the University of Sheffield, a project dedicated to finding out what makes the city really tick.
Slanted Theory x Urban Flows
The Urban Flows project was set up to develop a deeper understanding of the city’s energy flows – the resources it consumes and the output it generates over the course of hours, days and months. By studying these rhythms, the project aims to find out how we can optimize them, bringing greater harmony with the environment and making the best use of our finite resources.
Slanted Theory began working with Urban Flows scientists in November 2019, after our team (which also included fellow tech startup The Curve) won first prize at a hackathon event run by the Observatory.
Using data from the UF sensors, we’re now working together to understand the full potential of virtual reality for presenting data and helping to inform people on air quality. Our target is to use data to make an impact on policy decision-making at Sheffield City Council and help move the city towards a cleaner future.
The collaboration caught the attention of the press earlier this year, when we and Urban Flows were profiled on BBC Look North. The segment featured Laura and the team from Slanted Theory giving viewers a sneak peek at the technology in action. We also provided a hands-on demo to the BBC reporter, who pulled on a VR headset and dived straight into the data world.
Human health and the air we breathe
Air pollution is a big part of the Urban Flows story, since making air quality better is a huge priority for human health as well as environmental sustainability.
Poor air quality is linked with public health issues like respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular problems, allergies, high hospital admissions and even dementia, especially in large cities. Children growing up near busy roads and junctions are more likely to develop problems like asthma.
In recent weeks, high levels of air pollution have also been linked with higher mortality among Covid-19 patients, a correlation which may point towards poor respiratory health lowering patients’ resilience to the illness.
These trends are starkly compelling, and they point to major potential value in the air quality sensor data for Sheffield. But how do you turn raw data on a city’s air pollution into a convincing case for legislative change? As you might expect, we’ve got some ideas on how to make that happen.
VR brings air quality data into focus
Using the ALAIRA platform, we built a proof-of-concept to demonstrate the power of interactive data visualization in communicating air-quality research.
When you can see, ‘grab’ and physically explore data, understanding is deepened and more information is retained in memory. What’s more, it’s equally accessible to everyone of any background, since it taps into our fundamental human faculties of vision and spatial awareness.
By giving decision-makers at the city council free rein to explore the air-quality data together through ALAIRA’s VR environment, we can empower them to make their own discoveries and draw conclusions. This is easier and more beneficial than presenting them with a proposal to simply accept or reject, or asking them to wade through long and boring reports and studies.
All of that means it’s quicker and easier for more information to be understood by more individuals, leading – we hope – to quicker decision-making and results.
Slanted Theory’s founder Laura is passionate about making data more accessible, more intuitive and more immediate. “In its raw form, air quality data has so many layers to it. Its complexity makes it difficult to work with directly for those not in data science. What we’re doing is translating it into a visual language anyone can speak and understand. With that in place, you can connect and communicate with all kinds of people on a higher level,” she says.
Maria del Carmen Redondo Bermudez, a PhD student who is part of the Urban Flows team, echoes Laura’s sentiments. “This is what you want to create, because you can analyze the data and it’s a very strong way to communicate the science,” she said when interviewed by the BBC.
Future potential for public health data visualization
As we’ve seen from working with teams like Urban Flows, the potential for self-directed data exploration using platforms like ALAIRA is huge.
Large-scale events, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, generate masses of data, from human movement and infection rates to test results and exposure risks. Using technology like ALAIRA, all of these datapoints could be explored and combined in new ways resulting in new insights, unimagined solutions and fresh directions for research.
Events like Covid-19 also present new challenges in planning and monitoring for local government, since the dramatic changes to industry and society have thrown previous projections and assumptions out of the window. Laura and the team are currently exploring ways for councilors to keep track of the rapidly-changing data using ALAIRA. The future may look uncertain, but with more information brought together and new connections synthesized and explored, the potential for change is multiplied and new, brighter possibilities unfold.
To find out more about ALAIRA and request a demo, Get in touch