Identifying Problems and Offering Solutions: The Case of Google and Breathe London


It was released in the news last month that Google will be monitoring air quality within the Greater London Area, mapping real-time pollution levels using their StreetView cars. The new monitoring programme forms part of Breathe London, an initiative made up of a consortium of partners including various health and scientific experts as well as the Mayor of London. Breathe London aims to develop policy responses that help to improve the wellbeing and air quality of London and other cities worldwide.  

Opinions of the new scheme have been overwhelmingly positive, with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, praising the initiative as the ‘world’s largest’ air quality monitoring network. The new monitoring system involves two Google StreetView cars that are currently driving around the city taking air quality measurements every 30 metres. It also includes 100 fixed sensors fitted to buildings and roadside infrastructure.

We have already been involved in similar work here in Greenwich. Last year we worked with GSMA on a project that explored the potential to use mobile, IoT and Big Data technologies to better understand air pollution. GSMA combined different data sets including weather data, air quality (AQ) data from fixed stations and AQ data from mobile sensors within a moving vehicle, and analysed it using machine learning. The analysis demonstrated the value in using mobile devices  - whilst fixed monitoring stations are highly accurate the data is not localised or granular compared to portable IoT devices, which can be stationed and moved easily through the borough. Additionally, we found that analysing a range of data from various open and proprietary sources is useful for confirming air pollution data points and gaining a deeper understanding of the links between air pollution and other factors such as weather.


Whilst high-quality data is undoubtedly a good thing, the caveat is that when complex scientific information, such as real-time air pollution levels, is published on its own without any accompanying solutions, there can be unintended consequences. For example, in the case of Google’s real-time air pollution maps, we might instead find that more air pollution could be generated by people trying to reduce their exposure by driving and using public transport instead of walking and cycling. That’s why it’s so important that the data collected by Google is to be published as part of the Breathe London initiative, which will be used to provide evidence to policymakers and foster support amongst the local community to address the issue.

We at DG Cities welcome this and agree that a systems-based approach is vital for addressing any urban problem, including air pollution. Indeed, we always seek to achieve this here in Greenwich, an aim well captured by the Low Emission Neighbourhood scheme (LEN). LEN uses a combination of smart technology and tried-and-tested techniques to reduce transport emissions and improve air quality, and is a prime example of the borough’s commitment to adopting a holistic, integrated approach to reducing air pollution.

While distinct in their own right, one commonality between these various projects and initiatives is that they seek to both identify the issues at hand, as well as offer systems-based solutions. By using this approach we can begin to tackle complex urban issues such as the quantity and exposure to air pollution, and encourage involvement from policymakers and communities alike. We are excited to see Google and Breathe London’s progress and eager to learn from their findings so that we can create a cleaner and safer city for all.