Harnessing the power of technology: improving air quality in Plymouth

Led by an EHP turned public health practitioner, Plymouth is driving a city-wide project to improve air quality using people-powered technology.  

air pollution stat

At the same time as public health was moved out of the NHS into local government, Claire Turbutt in 2013 decided to switch from environmental health and complete a master’s in public health. 

She later joined Plymouth City Council as a Public Health Practitioner and is now leading on a city-wide project that aims to educate people how they can best protect themselves from air pollution. 

The project hinges on the development of a cheap air quality monitor that when worn transmits data on PM2.5 and PM10 particulates to an app on a mobile phone, which collects the data and sends it along with time, date and location to the cloud. The plan is to then update the collected data onto a real time map of Plymouth highlighting pollution hotspots. 

The project first came about as a result of two initiatives already running in Plymouth. The first was an environmental health project that used Defra funding to buy two black carbon monitors. These were used by local schools to raise awareness about air pollution and to educate parents about idling with their engines on outside schools. 

The second was part of Plymouth’s plans for economic growth to become a hotspot for digital technology and part of this ambition involves the council encouraging local technology businesses. 

The council found that it was holding large amounts of data that was not being properly utilized and invited local technology firms to brain storm what they might be able to achieve by using the stored data once it has been made anonymous with all sensitive data removed. Otherwise known as a ‘DATA Play’ event, it is a grassroots and collaborative evolution of ‘Hackathons’. 

In early 2016, the public health team was asked whether it wanted to partner a DATAPlay using the air quality data they already held. Two local companies, Elixel and Controlled Frenzy, picked up the air quality data and started to work out if they could design a personal dosage meter for school children. This was the starting point of the second initiative by Plymouth to better understand air pollution problems. 

The initial plan was to design an air quality monitor in kit form that schoolchildren could put together themselves and then use it to run an air quality project in school. Since then the council has partnered up with a local Community Interest Company called the Real Ideas Organisation (RIO). 

RIO has since started to plan to work with local schools to run a ‘citizen science’ project, which will see children collect the data and analyse it to work out what it means and what decisions should be taken as a result of what has been discovered.   

The project is currently in a trial phase with the technology company testing the personal monitors it has created to see how the data they provide compares with the far more high-tech black smoke monitors initially used in the environmental health project.  

So far there is a prototype website containing the data that has been collected during the testing period. With more than 100 schools in Plymouth a decision is yet to be taken whether to just focus on the city’s 67 primary schools or include secondary schools as well.

“The point of the project is to make it easier for people to protect themselves from air pollution and so make personal choices about it,’ said Claire. 

“But we also want to know more about how air pollution works in the city so we can target our efforts when it comes to improving cycle networks, and encouraging people not to drive but to cycle, take the bus or walk.” 

At £60 for a wearable monitor it is hoped that people who commute by car may also be encouraged to use a particulate monitor as a way of educating people that they are not immune from air pollution just because they are in a car when driving down major roads. 

In other initiatives to improve air quality, Plymouth has been developing a cycle network for a number of years and has set up a ‘Plymotion’ team tasked with encouraging commuters to use more sustainable alternatives to the car. The team goes door to door discussing how to best find an alternative to the car, including cycling. 

Claire added: “We don’t think people are aware of what they are being exposed to when they drive and we feel that making people aware of it through these monitors will be the first step in making them think they would be better off commuting by cycle or walking away from the main roads.” 




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