The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Davida Herzl, cofounder and chief executive officer of Aclima, an environmental sensor company based in San Francisco. Davida discussed Aclima’s partnership with Google Maps to install air quality sensors on Street View mapping cars, as well as the benefits of deploying large scale air quality sensing networks.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Joshua New: Aclima’s goal is to improve environmental and human health by collecting and analyzing sensor data from three deployment platforms—indoors, outdoors, and vehicles. Why divide it like this, rather than, say, urban or suburban, or water and air? What does each deployment platform focus on?
Davida Herzl: We take 20,000 breaths a day, but we know very little about what we’re breathing. We’re not fully aware that the same emissions that are changing our climate and polluting our skylines end up in our buildings and our bodies. Aclima’s indoor, outdoor, and mobile deployments map these connections and provide powerful insights to better manage our environments. Each platform is designed to provide meaningful data about the places where people spend their days.
Our deployments offer different strategies to mapping air quality, and each enables us to explore different facets of our environment—from an office building to a playground or a busy freeway during rush hour traffic. Also, as a business, each platform addresses a different set of customers and needs.
At the 11th Annual Clinton Global Initiative Meeting in New York City, we announced that Aclima and Google Maps have committed to measuring and mapping air quality in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley of California. There are 30 million registered vehicles in California, nearly one for every resident. The majority of those vehicles emit climate-changing pollution that harms our health. We believe it’s important to consider both mobile and stationary pollution sources to provide a fuller, richer picture of our environment.
When we have the tools to understand how our buildings and cities live and breathe, we can find new solutions for healthier people and a healthier planet. We are beginning with air, but we see a future where our sensor networks expand to include things like water quality.
New: Just what kind of data do Aclima sensors collect? Are there any kinds of data you wish you could collect but are unable to?
Herzl: We believe that the quality of our environment directly impacts the human experience and our wellbeing. Indoors, we’re measuring a spectrum of variables referred to as “comfort parameters” which include temperature and humidity, noise, and light, as well as gases like carbon dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds, as well as particulate matter. Outdoors, we also measure pollutants that affect our climate like ozone, methane, and carbon dioxide.
We have a number of scientific and research partnerships to make sensors smaller and better. For example, we’re working to commercialize the smallest particulate matter sensor in the world, which is important because of the role particulate matter plays in declining respiratory health around the world. Current sensor technology is bulky, expensive, and requires full-time staffing. We are working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and the University of Illinois at Chicago on this effort.
New: Can you talk about Aclima’s partnership to install sensors on Google’s Street View mapping cars? What do you hope to learn from this project?
Herzl: This summer, we announced a new partnership with Google Earth Outreach to map and better understand urban air quality. The partnership enables a paradigm shift in environmental awareness by equipping Street View cars with Aclima’s mobile sensing platform to see the air around us in ways never before possible.
We drove 750 miles in our Denver pilot and correlated 150 million data points against research-grade equipment deployed by EPA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Denver pilot wasn’t just about proving the system worked but validating the science, our collection methods, and our hypothesis for why this data is needed. Data quality is core to our work and everything we do. The potential for this data is transformative and demonstrating that it was possible to map air quality at this resolution is a game changer. We had to get that right, and we did. We’re building on that experience by mapping cities across California through 2016.
Our goal is to create a new class of data that will be made available to these California communities, scientists, and air quality experts, as well as on Google Earth and Google Maps. This commitment represents the next frontier of awareness about air pollution, and will lead to solutions that improve both human health and planetary health.
New: Simply learning about air quality isn’t enough to make people healthier. How do you get companies or governments to act on this information?
Herzl: Learning about what’s in our air is the first step to taking action. We can’t manage what we can’t measure. To date, we’ve lacked the data to even understand important decisions about our health, let alone take more informed action. Closing this feedback loop is critical and at the core of what Aclima cares about.
Our mission is to deliver data insights to making the invisible, visible. We work hand-in-hand with our deployment partners to design and deploy sensor networks that answer the most salient questions, delivering valuable insights at any resolution. A healthier world requires strong partnerships.
New: Aclima is pretty new, having launched this summer. What have you been able to accomplish so far?
Herzl: Building an entirely new technology and deploying sensor networks at the scale we envision is hard work. It hasn’t been done before. To get things right, it requires bringing together a lot of different disciplines and capabilities. Because we want to enable change, we are very committed to scientific rigor and high data quality. All of this has taken significant time and effort. Although the world is only now learning about us and our work, we’ve been around for several years building the foundations of our company and technology, as well as the partnerships to deliver on our mission.
We look forward to sharing more of Aclima’s partners and large-scale sensing efforts in the coming months.