An App Helps You Escape Rising Seas

Coders use data to give people smartphone tools for fighting climate change and air pollution.
(Photo: Reuters)
Jul 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

For a group of tech-savvy Londoners, protests and petitions are so yesterday. Instead, they’re fighting climate change and the city’s notorious air pollution through smartphone apps and websites.

“If the cost of housing was combined with a house’s exposure to air pollution, we were hoping that people might actively take a grassroots-level approach to do something about it to increase its value,” said Nicholas O’Donnell-Hoare, a third-generation London resident and lead designer at environmental business data company AMEE.

His team of four cooked up a prototype of the Pollupia website, which overlays livestreamed data from air pollution sensors on a map of price-tagged properties across London. They conceived the idea when participating in the recent 24-hour Climathon challenge organized by EU initiative Climate-KIC. On June 18, coders in 19 cities from Bogotá, Colombia, to Beijing worked around the clock to devise data-driven tech solutions to climate change.

Each city tasked its participants with responding to a climate-related challenge. While Londoners took on air pollution, Boston organizers asked participants to come up with tools that would help residents adapt to the risk of sea-level rise and flooding during storm surges.

In Boston, former risk analyst Nissia Sabri and her team developed the idea for uFlood, a Web platform and mobile app to generate turn-by-turn evacuation routes in the metropolitan area. Because many of those who live in the low-lying areas of the city’s eastern edge may not be proficient in English, the team decided to convey directions visually.

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Because people aren’t usually motivated to plan for disasters they haven’t experienced, Sabri’s team hopes to incorporate virtual reality in uFlood—which will tap weather data—to show what the water level will look like in any given area for approaching storms.

“We wanted something that would attract people and make them curious to use it before they needed it,” Sabri, an engineer and an MIT graduate student, said. “And people are interested in games and virtual reality—that’s the hook to get people thinking about it.”

While O’Donnell-Hoare’s team—which included developers from AMEE and IBM and a particle physicist—finished their winning project in just eight hours, Sabri’s will require more money and time to become a functioning app.

As one of Boston’s winning teams, uFlood—along with the other cities’ winners—will receive mentorship and support to bring the app online. All the winners will show the fruits of their labor in December at the international climate change negotiations in Paris.

So, Why Should You Care? Climate change–related health problems cost the United States alone $14 billion between 2002 and 2009, while air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths in the U.S. and 600,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, according to government agencies.

London’s other winning team plans to outfit rental bicycles with air pollution sensors as a way to give the public a more complete picture of real-time air pollution levels across central London. In the coming months, the developers of AirPublic will put sensors on up to 15 bike messengers’ rides as a proof-of-concept pilot project.

“We plan to give people access to the air pollution data that’s updated online in real time, which is about every three seconds,” said AirPublic cofounder James Moulding, who was inspired to develop the app by four years of bicycling through London’s bad air.

“The core idea of AirPublic is to make the data relevant to different people,” Moulding said. “Having access to that data is really important for challenging the government when it says London isn’t polluted…the level of [available] data at the moment isn’t real-time enough to make people incensed and want to do something about it.”