Sensors: The next frontier for pollution reduction

Fred Krupp

Thirty years ago, several of our scientists snuck into our New York City headquarters on a weekend to take over the organization’s entire computer system and run data analytics on acid rain.

To make room for their calculations, they moved all our computer files off the system and onto magnetic tape. By Sunday night, they were scrambling to restore those files, hoping to finish before the office opened on Monday morning.

One of the scientists finally owned up to this recently – now that he works for a university and is no longer on my payroll.

“And today,” he said, “I could do it all on my phone!”

That’s the change that time has wrought.

When I lived in Connecticut in the 1970s, the governor shut down air pollution monitors in four cities because they showed elevated readings of heavy metals. That won’t happen today because in 2015, we have low-cost sensors providing pollution data directly to citizens and advocacy groups.

Unlike 30 years ago, when Environmental Defense Fund fought to reduce acid rain, no politician will be able to cut off access to the data needed to protect our environment and our health. Because now it’s showing up on a smart phone you’re holding in your hand, or on an inexpensive gadget you bought online.

Sophisticated, inexpensive sensors combined with powerful data analytics are transforming environmental protection – by giving people the power to see like never before.

We now have wristbands that measure our exposure to toxic chemicals, Google mapping vehicles that measure methane leaks in our neighborhoods, inhalers equipped with GPS that help identify asthma hot spots, and smart meters that track our energy use every 15 minutes.

This is how knowledge brings power.