One of most significant threats to the health and wellbeing of those who live in cities is air pollution. The World Health Organisation estimates more than 90% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed recommended safe limits. In the UK this invisible danger is behind only cancer, obesity and heart disease as the biggest issue in public health. It can lead to chronic or even fatal diseases including asthma and lung cancer. It’s because of this, the government launched its Clean Air Strategy in January and London its Ultra Low Emission Zone in April.
Costing the country billions of pounds per year, air pollution has a clear impact on our economy and wellbeing – but despite the immense pressure on local authorities to tackle the issue, the problem is difficult to visualise and subsequently hard to address through policy measures.
One way we are addressing this is by moving the discussion away from far-away, distant targets, and enabling actions in the short term. City Air Management technology, developed by Siemens, enables cities to make informed, short-term decisions about how to deal with upcoming bad air-pollution days. By providing detailed, real-time data in a format that is easy to visualise, it presents a range of actions that city leaders could take immediately, with long-term benefits for the city. Air quality is very specific to a location, and it can differ dramatically within a short range dependent on distance from the source – roads in this case – and the position of buildings and green space.
The system produces a five-day forecast of air pollution levels, based on hourly readings from sensors all over the city and a piece of artificial intelligence known as a neural network. This has learned from past weather and air quality data. It can link weather forecasts with current monitor readings – from these precise locations – to deliver a highly accurate air quality forecast. Cities can then simulate different actions they can take prior to the ‘bad air day’ to avoid it happening. For example, if we know on Tuesday morning there will be an exceptional spike in problematic air quality, what can we do on Monday to minimise the harm? Lowering the price of public transport to take more vehicles off the road, or banning diesel cars from city centres, are just two of many creative measures that can be put into place. With this data, cities will have the time to react.
Weather and air quality are two data streams that can be fed into city digital twins, where real time data can be used to predict immediate threats and boost resilience. New digital technologies processing data in this way can contribute to tangible improvements in local quality of life.
The key to tackling the issues of our growing cities is in scaling up pioneering initiatives, and investing in the knowledge and technology to build better urban communities. By empowering citizens to make informed decisions about their health and giving city authorities the tools to better understand the causes and severity of air pollution, we can ensure critical targets for improving air quality are met. In the long-term, everyone can benefit from the economic and social advantages attained from city life without sacrificing their health and wellbeing.