Can social media really monitor air pollution?

DateMar 18, 2016
AuthorCatherine Shiers

Have you ever opened your front door and breathed in the fresh, clean air? But actually how clean is the air you are breathing right now?


According to recent news headlines, not very:

“Law firm in new legal threat over UK air pollution”1

“East England towns and cities ‘have illegal NO2 levels’”2

“Defra faces legal action over ‘woeful’ air pollution policy”3

It has also just emerged that environmental law firm ClientEarth have sent a final warning to environment secretary Liz Truss, giving her 10 days to act on “dirty air” or face legal action in the high court4.

This moves comes after a report published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College and Paediatrics and Child Health warned that an estimated 40,000 people die each year as a result of air pollution in the UK5 and is estimated to reduce life expectancy by an average 7-8 months6. On a global scale The World Health Organisation estimates that air pollution is the cause of 1 in 8 deaths7.

Air pollution is commonly thought as smog hanging over a city as a result of dirty factories or a huge coal fired power station, and during the Industrial Revolution the main causes of air pollution were very easy to identify. However every day, each and every one of us is contributing to this pollution in one way or another. This could be using household cleaning products, using an air duster canister to clean your computer keyboard and the more obvious one – driving your car.

Traditionally, air pollution is measured using particle monitoring equipment, however scientists in Asia have come up with a revolutionised way to do this by utilising social media called project AirTick. New Scientist has reported that in 2015, humanity put 2 to 3 trillion photographs on the internet using social sharing sites7 such as Facebook and Instagram, and by studying our photos scientists gain fresh insight into our lives and our cities. AirTick analyses when and where photos of city streets were taken combined with official air quality data. These are then fed into an algorithm to estimate the level of pollutants in the air based solely on how it appears in the photographs.

The goal of AirTick is for the general population to obtain real-time estimates of the air quality in their neighbourhood, rather than relying on the traditional sensors which can be expensive and not widely owned – nearly everyone has a cameraphone!

In the UK Local Authorities have a legal duty to review and measure air pollution under Part IV of the Environment Act 1995 and to try to predict how it might change over the coming years8. This is to ensure that the National Air Quality Objectives will be achieved throughout the UK by the relevant deadlines. These objectives have been out in place to protect people’s health and the environment. Where a Local Authority finds any area – be it a single street or a whole town – is not meeting these objectives, it must declare it an Air Quality management Area, and implement a plan to improve the air quality (Local Air Quality Action Plan)9.

If you would like to find out more about air pollution in your area please contact Groundsure for further details and register your interest in this data.

  5. New Scientist 27th February 2016
  6. Defra - The Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – volume 1