Ever asked yourself “How can I live a greener lifestyle?. How can I as an individual consume less and have a smaller footprint on our shared planet’s resources?”. Intuitively we all know that the simplest and best way is to just use less energy and materials, for example by turning the heating down, traveling less or not replacing clothes until they are truly worn out. In our consumer society this obvious solution is muddied by advertising and media messages telling us that we can be green through consumption; we are encouraged to buy insulation/new windows for our houses, we should install solar panels, change to LED light bulbs, run an electric car or even buy that new bicycle that you have long promised yourself. The narratives are if you buy this item/material, then you will receive green absolution for your sins. This is of course rubbish; you can’t consume your way to true greenness. Nonetheless, our society runs on trade/consumption and relative greenness through consumption seems the better option than consume and hang the consequences.
There is now a new entrant onto the greenness through consumption market, a consumer device from Plumelabs, the “Flow”. This comprises a miniaturised and fully portable air quality tracker https://plumelabs.com/en/, currently available for pre-order at £129. This beautifully designed device contains sensors that measure four main components of air pollution, nitrous oxides, volatile hydrocarbons, PM10 particles and PM2.5 particles. It can be hand-held, fitted onto your bicycle or even be attached to your clothes. The sensors link to location data in your mobile phone and upload the pollution data via a phone app to a central database to allow the drawing up of pollution maps, the accuracy of the maps increasing as the user group increases. It differs from conventional green consumerism in that rather than being a device to reduce one’s impact on the planet, it is a device to record society’s impact on the atmosphere.
When I first read about the Flow, my initial reaction was “wonderful”, at last we will get an independent and detailed map of air quality. And then scepticism kicked in.
I have an interest in acquiring and assessing data and it occurred to me, if I am collecting air-quality data and it is being uploaded to a server, who owns the data? I posed this question to Plumelabs and it transpires that while you buy and operate the device, all data belong to Plumelabs. In effect, everyone who buys a Flow device will become an unpaid data collector. For most potential users this will not be an issue. Few will have any desire to own the data or use it for their own purposes. In any case, the power of the data lies in the fact that potentially many thousands or even millions of people will contribute data and build up detailed maps showing variation in air quality data, not just in space, but in time as well; variations through a day, variations through the seasons. Flow has the potential to be a very powerful tool.
All the same it is important that any potential Flow user should be fully aware that the data they collect becomes an input to a marketable commodity. Data will be sold to third party companies, for example for air quality forecasting https://techcrunch.com/2017/08/01/plume-labs-launches-plume-io-an-api-for-air-pollution/. Plumelabs indicate that they will be making data available to researchers and activists, but this will be by courtesy only. In effect, Plumelabs are setting themselves up as a big data company and owners of the Flow are at the bottom rung of the data collection chain.
If you are thinking of buying the Plumelabs Flow monitor, here are some questions to ask yourself beforehand.
- Do you really want to buy and carry another consumer electronic device that you will have to remember to charge up at frequent intervals? Will you actually bother to carry it after the first few weeks of ownership?
- What difference do you think that knowing the air quality data in your immediate surrounding help you/your family? You already know that the worst pollution you are likely to encounter is in busy city centre streets so would you change your behaviour when the Flow monitor confirms this? Will Flow data simply cause you to worry when you see that certain locations at certain times have high pollution indices?
- What happens when the instrument/battery dies? Would you feel motivated to replace it or would the malfunction of the device actually make your life easier, one less thing to worry about? At the end of its life can the device be recycled or will it just go to land-fill?
- Plumelabs are setting out to be a “big data” company collecting global air pollution data. Are you content with knowing that the data you collect will be owned by Plumelabs who will then sell it as data packages to third parties? They may release data to researchers, activists and users, but as far as I can ascertain this will be a courtesy only which could in theory be withdrawn.
In my final analysis, I remain highly intrigued by the concept but worried that they are trying to mass market yet another portable device, one that has a lifestyle impact in that it needs to be charged-up and then carried; more tasks for a busy day. Like all electronic devices it takes energy and material to make and has a finite design life. Its ultimate destination is at best scrap, at worst land-fill. You can of course say this about almost anything we buy, but do we as individuals need something as esoteric as a personal air pollution monitor? Would it not be better for Plumelabs to sell such devices to local authorities for them to operate on our behalf, or are Plumelabs concerned that local authorities would demand data ownership? As much as I am intrigued by what the data will look like, I am personally not convinced that this device has a place in my life. All the same, I will watch this endeavour with much interest.