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Bring air pollution into view with AirVisual Earth

Speed read
  • Airborne particulate matter can devastate your health – but it’s difficult to see
  • AirVisual created an interactive visualization of particulate matter around the world
  • HPC enabled AirVisual to compile data from a variety of sources

Visualizing a problem is one of the first steps to solving it. How can one solve a problem if they can’t see it?

Something in the air. The interactive AirVisual Earth app brings invisible (and harmful) airborne particulate matter into view. Click here for a full screen version. Courtesy Yann Boquillod.

That’s the challenge with airborne particulate matter (PM). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PM is a combination of solid particles and liquid droplets from sources such as construction sites, smokestacks, or unpaved roads.

PM can create consequences for communities because it remains in the air for long periods of time and can find its way into the bloodstream.

The World Health Organization estimates that 6.5 million deaths worldwide in 2012 were the result of air pollution. But since some of the particles, known as PM2.5, are just 2.5 microns or less — 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair — they can be difficult for people to visualize.

To bring the problem into view, data scientist Yann Boquillod created an interactive visualization of PM2.5 pollution data called AirVisual Earth. The graphic allows users to engage with PM2.5 data in a real, tangible way.

“We created the AirVisual project to empower people and bring this pollution data into visualization,” Boquillod says.

To help the public tune into air pollution, Boquillod used high performance computing (HPC) to compile data from a variety of sources: Ground monitoring stations, satellite imagery, and an array of proprietary air quality sensors.

When people are armed with data, they can push changes. ~Yann Boquillod

HPC also allowed Boquillod to take data from over 200 different government sites and convert it into a single format.

“AirVisual Earth is a very complex rendering of pollution data,” he says, “yet it can be easily understood by laymen.”

The visualization shows an air quality index (AQI) on a scale from 0 to 300+. Higher scores mean the AQI can create health problems for a community.

By clicking points on the map, users can see the PM2.5 levels for specific areas.

The applications of AirVisual Earth are broad and far-ranging, Boquillod notes. As people become aware about air quality in their communities, they have information they can use to demand action from leaders on topics such as climate policy.

<strong>Look before you leap. </strong> The AirVisual Earth app lets you see the air quality for any point on the globe. Courtesy Yann Boquillod.

“When people are armed with data, they can push changes,” Boquillod says. “AirVisual Earth is just one of the tools that will help push forward awareness about air quality. With our app and air quality sensors, we are already bringing this empowerment to many people around the globe.”

The visualization can also help people become aware of their own contributions to air pollution.

“We think that air pollution tends to always be our neighbor’s fault, never ours,” Boquillod says. “As long as you don’t see your pollution emissions, you don’t see the need to reduce them. AirVisual Earth shows us our emissions and how we make our planet sick. We hope AirVisual is used as a wake-up call to humanity.”

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