Mobile phones – distributed air quality sensor network?

Since giving my talk on sustainability in the mobile phone sector at Mobile 2.0 in Barcelona a few weeks back and writing my post about how Augmented Reality on mobiles could be transformative for Green tech I have been thinking a lot about how mobiles could make a significant positive contribution to the planet.

The context behind this is that while there are 1 billion PCs in the world and 1.4 billion internet users, there are 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions and climbing. One possibility I posited at Mobile 2.0 was that mobiles could become clients for grid computing projects like IBM’s World Community Grid. This would add significantly to the compute power of the grid (but for now battery life considerations probably means this is still a few years out).

The other thought rattling around in my head was probably sparked off by my discussions with IBM execs around their Smarter Planet initiative. It occurs to me that if mobile phones had built-in air quality monitors, you could very quickly build up a real-time map of pollution hotspots. Current municipal pollution monitors are static and far too few in number to give a meaningful picture of air quality but if mobile phones had this capability, the combining of the air quality information with the GPS data from the phone would allow for pinpointing of pollution trouble spots very quickly.

Obviously for this to be effective, the data would need to be anonymized and uploaded to a central server. Also, the pollution information would need to be made freely available for everyone’s consumption. There may even be a business model there for someone to pay mobile phone users to sample air and upload the information.

A quick bit of research around this thought and I found the video above showing that not alone is it feasible but it wasn’t a hugely original idea on my part ;-)

With the recent news of urban pollution being responsible for lower IQ in children and being implicated in premature births of infants and preeclampsia, there is a definite health imperative for something like this. Especially in China, where air pollution is causing massive health problems. Imagine if the Chinese authorities mandated this the way they mandated that all mobile phone chargers use usb back in 2006! Very quickly economies of scale would drive costs down and competition amongst manufacturers would mean smaller chipsets to do this.

Original Rockwell GPS receiver - image from ion.org

Original Rockwell GPS receiver - image from ion.org

For anyone who thinks that air quality monitors would be too bulky for mobile phones, just have a look at what the original GPS receivers looked like (large backpacks) and now they are embedded in most smart phones!

One final thought harking back to my post on Augmented Reality, with air quality data from mobile phones uploaded to the cloud (unintentional pun, sorry!) it would be very straightforward to create an Augmented Reality view of air quality allowing mobile phone owners to ‘see’ pollution in their immediate environment – imagine how quickly that would drive home to people the seriousness of their air quality situation.