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article imageTechnology turning air pollution into business opportunity

By Karen Graham     Dec 30, 2015 in Environment
Air pollution and the technology needed to make accurate forecasts on air quality conditions could become the newest big business opportunity. Two tech companies, IBM and Microsoft, are vying to tap into this fast-growing market.
Because of a number of bouts of extremely heavy smog in Beijing recently, China made the unprecedented move of announcing "red alerts" this month, meaning the city's 22 million people could expect heavy pollution for two to three days.
Being able to create an alert makes use of advanced technology in the realm of pollution forecasting, as well as accurate monitoring equipment and computer-generated climate models to get reliable predictions. The ruling Communist party is now taking air quality measures very seriously in the wake of the Paris climate talks and growing public awareness.
Now, two of the world's largest technology companies, Microsoft and IBM, are looking to tap into this young, but fast-growing market, reports Reuters on Tuesday.
There is another reason for China's interest in improving air quality monitoring technology — the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, a time of year when smog is always at its worst in China. "There is increasing attention to the air quality forecast service," said Yu Zheng, a researcher at Microsoft, according to the New York Times. "More and more people care about this information technology."
Predicting clean air using weather patterns
One of the earliest attempts to forecast air quality was made by Dustin Grzesik in 2013. A geochemist by training, he constructed his first app, after studying Beijing's publicly available weather patterns.
"It's pretty clear if you live in Beijing and you get a northerly wind, the pollution clears up in most cases and I wanted a way to automate that," Grzesik told the BBC in 2013. Grzesik and his family were living in Beijing at that time, but because of the smog, moved back to California.
And weather patterns play a major role in predicting air quality. "If you can predict the weather, it only takes a few more variables to predict air quality," said Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth, a U.S.-based non-profit that maps China's real-time air pollution. "Most of the time pollutant emissions don't vary very rapidly."
More sophisticated forecasting software in forecasting air quality
Modern advances in "cognitive computing," machines that actually are programmed to improve modeling on their own, allow more sophisticated forecasting software to provide predictions on air quality for up to 10 days in advance using a number of sources, like weather, traffic and land use, monitoring stations and even social media.
Using these more advanced technologies, government bodies can get reliable air quality information, aiding them in planning school and airport closings, and restricting vehicle traffic or shutting down factories. In 2014, Microsoft and IBM secured their first government clients in China after developing their own pollution forecasting technologies.
Smog as big business
China's government didn't begin releasing real-time levels of PM2.5, an airborne particulate matter under 2.5 microns in diameter that can penetrate deep into the lungs, until 2012. This was after denouncing the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for releasing their own real-time data on PM2.5 levels on Twitter.
IBM's first client just happens to be the city of Beijing's environmental protection bureau, which just happens to base their color-coded alerts on that very same technology. IBM started the "Joint Environmental Innovation Center" in Beijing earlier this month, staffed by government officials and IBM employees, allowing close work to go on in modeling air pollution reduction scenarios during some of the worst smog episodes.
However, at this time, China's government only makes public a 24-hour forecast on its air quality website, meaning the public really can't plan ahead any further than one day. A big-time deal was made between IBM and Zhangjiakou, the company who will host the 2022 Winter Olympics alongside Beijing. IBM will go forward in creating planning and scenario modeling in advance of the games.
While they were claiming new clients, IBM added Delhi, the world's most polluted city, as well as Johannesburg, South Africa. However, Microsoft has also been busy, signing up China's environment ministry, and the environmental protection bureaus in Fujian province and Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Leader of IBM s Green Horizon initiative: Dr. Jin Dong  Distinguished Engineer & Member of IBM Indus...
Leader of IBM's Green Horizon initiative: Dr. Jin Dong, Distinguished Engineer & Member of IBM Industry Academy, Associate Director, IBM Research - China.
"We should be able to use the same base system and do air quality forecasting in different parts of the world," said Brad Gammons, the business leader behind the IBM initiative, "Green Horizons." The Green Horizons project was started to help China support and develop its national energy systems along with protecting the health of its citizens.
Air quality? Yep, there's an app for that
The two technology rivals aren't competing for government contracts alone. Private businesses are also fair game, as are consumers. IBM is also looking at renewable power generation companies. They already have 30 solar farms in China using their forecasting technology to help predict the availability of sunlight.
Urban air quality -- the concentration of PM2.5 -- is of great importance in protecting human health...
Urban air quality -- the concentration of PM2.5 -- is of great importance in protecting human health. While there are limited air-quality-monitor-stations in a city, air quality varies by location significantly and is influenced by multiple complex factors, such as traffic flow and land use.
Microsoft Research
Microsoft created a website called Urban Air and a smartphone app that gives a 48-hour air quality forecast for cities across China. The China Open tennis tournament put two-day IBM pollution forecasts for parks across Beijing on its public WeChat social messaging account. Microsoft is admitting, though, there are still a few "kinks" to be worked out in the app.
There will and should be other tech companies getting in on the feeding frenzy created by the need for better air quality forecasting. One start-up called Air Visual, is a pollution monitoring company based in Beijing, and they are already giving the two tech giants a run for their money. Air Visual uses a smartphone app and their website to give users a free, three-day forecast for countries around the world.
More about china's smog, Air pollution, fast growing market, pollution forecasting, Air quality
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