April 15, 2024

Mobile Air Quality Monitoring Research and Its Real-Life Impact: Interview with Dr. Nimish Biloria, UTS, and Dr. Hamish Robertson, QUT


This is the second part of our interview with Dr. Nimish Biloria from the University of Sydney and Dr. Hamish Robertson from the Queensland University of Technology. Our conversation focuses on why mobile air quality monitoring is beneficial in everyday life and for research purposes. We also discuss the major challenges researchers face when planning their studies to ensure they can be translated into actionable insights.

  • Dr. Nimish Biloria is an Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney’s School of Architecture. His areas of expertise are Architecture, Smart Cities, Sustainable Mobility, Social Robotics, and Tangible and Embedded Interaction. His primary focus is enhancing urban health and well-being.
  • Dr. Hamish Robertson is a Senior Lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology’s  Faculty of Health. His areas of expertise are Patient Safety, Big Data Sociology, and Spatial Science Applications in the Health, Ageing, and Disability sectors.

You can check out the first interview, which focuses on the connection between air pollution and public health and uses Australia as an example, here.


Isam D., ATMO: From your perspective, what kind of problems can mobile or remote air quality monitoring services solve? 

Hamish R.: One of the benefits of citizen science approaches, including individuals' engagement in self-managing their healthcare, is their knowledge of what's affecting them, their local environment, and their community. We also understand that the variability across geographic spaces can be considerable in terms of exposure, risk factors, individual responses, disease states, and levels of acuity.

So many factors come into play. Individual monitoring offers much more than a broad-brush public policy approach. And I'm not suggesting it's an either-or scenario.

Considering the challenges posed by climate change, increasing chronic diseases, and an aging population, having the ability to collect and integrate data digitally and in real-time is crucial. This capability can significantly improve how we inform and respond through health and emergency services. 

“In Australia, we have ambulance services and the State of Emergency Services, which often respond to environmentally related emergencies, such as weather disasters. Providing these services with the data is particularly vital for supporting older adults with cognitive impairments, respiratory conditions, heart conditions, or diabetes living in the community.”

It allows for timely and appropriate responses that can positively impact their health and the health outcomes of the wider community.

Nimish B: I fully agree. In Australia, for instance, there was a big concern about UV radiation. You have fantastic apps on mobile phones that will tell you that today, the UV index is this. Maybe you should wear sunscreen. Maybe you should take your dog out for a walk from this time to this time. These are very simple baseline communication methods. I think that's what is definitely needed in terms of raising awareness. 

The other thing is real-time data collection. How do we process this collected data? We can do something immediately, such as say, “Today is not that good if you have asthma.” But can we come up with other solutions, such as improving urban designs or urban density? How do I change traffic density patterns and traffic flow patterns that are moving around in the city? Such things, collected through a longitudinal study, can also bring long-term benefits. I think both of these scenarios need to be considered. 

The other thing is that political discussion usually occurs when discussing top-down initiatives run by governments. This densification needs to happen; take this plot of urban land and do whatever. Done. But nobody talks about the lived experience of people inside these places. First of all, we're not only talking about democratizing technology, but at the same time, we're looking at on-ground actual scenarios, which are actual feedback. 

And these come in two ways. One is quantitative, and one is qualitative.

"The data we might get with ATMO air quality monitors can also be supported by qualitative argumentations, which connect a wider area of determinants to that measurement. For instance, how far away are you from a green area? Are you close to a train station? All those things would start building up, and then people would open up and contribute much more because they were involved; therefore, they would pay much more attention than just being focused on their mobile devices while walking around the streets."

I find the idea of mobile sensing with Atmotube PRO interesting. It's almost like you attach it and forget about it, right? But simultaneously, you're being much more perceptive of the environment around you. And therefore, while I'm walking amid buildings that are fully glass-laden, with high heat reflection and temperature increase, I'm feeling uncomfortable, and then you go home and check. Oh, well, the air quality was quite bad at that time. Then, you start to relate the contextual conditions that could have led to this. I’m happy that Atmotube measures air quality, such as PM2.5 and VOCs, and temperature and humidity to find the interrelationships.  

Students from the Faculty of Design, Architecture, and Building at the University of Technology Sydney measuring air quality using Atmotube PRO monitors.

That's where we can analyze the environment for children here in Australia. Almost all the big schools are on major infrastructure roads. When kids are being dropped off, vehicles are idling, and pollution levels are increasing. Well, here comes the issue of where schools should be located. If you take them too far away, are they equitable? Are they accessible? All of those things start to build up. 

So I think the whole strategy, connected through real-time air quality data collection, can be extrapolated and projected onto all sectors, ultimately impacting us. We need to use this channel by making people aware through citizen science initiatives, which will be the perfect example of the people's voice. This is how technology and human resources can be combined to bring about this revolution.

Hamish R.: From a health perspective, one of the things we're constantly demanding of people is that they become more health literate. But we don't necessarily give them simple tools for that. In contrast, if we look at, for example, Atmotube PRO, it's an example of a tool that's pretty readily understandable and accessible in terms of price point. Still, it also improves health literacy and allows individuals to monitor environmental factors contributing to their health status. 

So we start to have evidence-informed citizen science, not just one-off projects or pilot projects or those sorts of things, which are very common in non-developed countries and tend to get brushed under the carpet over time. Rather, now you have a genuinely health-literate community of users who are potentially generating, producing, and analyzing that data.

Nimish B.: It's also very important to understand the city. I always say this: understand the city as a mosaic, right? Every part of the city is very different.

We currently have state monitors, basically weather stations, which are kept in different places in Australia. However, nobody knows about the microclimatic conditions inside precincts and suburbs, right? So there are also times when you might find precincts that appear super green, with white roofs and everything. Still, when you walk around those precincts, you realize that the front-facing scenario is one while the back-facing scenario is very different.

So where is heat being generated, and how is your air conditioning and everything pumping out heat again on the other end, raising the temperature? I think it is really important for us to understand how to reach that microclimatic level.  

Isam D., ATMO: What are the usual challenges researchers generally have when collecting, visualizing, and presenting data? Also, can you elaborate on how we can move from collecting data on an individual level and use this data for something on a wider scale? 

Hamish R.: The major things for researchers tend to be time, money, and political will in terms of translating research into public policy, practice, regulatory environments, and so on. And this is not uncommon anywhere, I think. If you, as a researcher, are generating data analysis and findings that contribute to the broader health domain, those are the three things most likely to constrain or complicate that process. 

Another thing to consider is the communication of those findings and that information. I alluded earlier to the fact that if we're looking to build health literacy at a community level through the application of technologies that allow individuals to have an increased understanding of what their health status is, what their points of exposure are, and what actions they might take to ameliorate some of those exposures, then we're in a very different space. It’s a different scenario than the traditional big top-down public health type models, where the federal or state governments set the agenda.

So that would be my take. Population aging, rising chronic disease, and rise of disability, which is not just physical disability, but, for example, neurodivergent issues, etc. – we need to think about these things much better than we have in the past. 

Nimish B.: Yeah. So, you asked how we move from the individual to the community scale. For the research projects we might be embarking upon, the idea is to consider a citizen science approach, where we have groups of people moving across geolocations. 

Let's say five people in a group have different activities together with the goal of collecting correlating information. So we're trying to create sense and emotional mapping, we are also taking atmospheric air quality measurements, we are also trying to situate ourselves in a model called the circumplex model, we are also trying to take photographs and document the surroundings we are actually in. We're also visiting the same spots at different times of the day to understand the temporality of these variations that can occur and why they occur. What are those rigorous activities that happen around you that compound this kind of impact? Now, the whole idea is to pull this information together. 

Thinking of the city as a mosaic, we want to study this mosaic, right? For instance, we need to understand why one suburb is more walkable than another. Is there an actual difference we can find while walking through the streets or the gullies? Will we discover differences in temperature spikes, air quality spikes, and the conditions surrounding them and then assimilate this data together? 

Of course, we won't be able to cover all of Sydney; that will be a huge project. But I think of covering at least substantial suburbs that, in our opinion, are critical to studying and understanding why these variations are occurring. 

“The whole idea would be to combine this data and develop demographic and health data-oriented correlations. Ultimately, we want to build, as Hamish and I call it, “data ecology” to start understanding this interrelationship.”

That's where that whole community spirit, the whole idea of understanding the city by witnessing it and walking across it, turns into very interesting domains because when you walk, everything slows down, right? And then you become a little more observant of things around you. 

Hamish R.: And if I can say at a systemic level, we are in a position to produce, for example, dashboards, which are an aggregate of those individuals’ experience, then they can start to inform service delivery. For example, you might have something relevant for the ambulance service. They could correlate that data over time with where they get spikes in demand. Is it because the population is aging? Is it because the environmental conditions in that area contribute to serious health effects? They can start to manage their service delivery models by being more informed by that data that can be anonymized. 

We have seen individuals and families who can self-manage more effectively and become more health-literate because they have a mechanism. 

So, I think under climate change, that's something we see as having a lot of potential going forward.

Nimish B.: In some ways, it also paves the way from the citizen, which is the basic unit, to the local council, to the state government, and then to the federal. 

Isam D., ATMO: Given the path from a single individual to a population, it seems like a very long process requiring much effort and research. Could you point out a couple of main challenges you may face or have faced in your research? 

Hamish R.: I would say one of the things is an extension of what we discussed before regarding health literacy. And that is the accessibility of these technologies for individuals to understand what's happening. 

However, as Nimish referred, there is also a need for a potential platform for people of like mind, interest, or shared experience to self-advocate. For example, if they have considerable respiratory disease under medical treatment, they don't necessarily have to rely on quotes from academic researchers. They may readily partner with us to add an extra level of analysis and perhaps visualization. 

What we are trying to do in the 21st century is to no longer study people like isolettes or on a petri dish, but they co-produce knowledge with us.

Nimish B.: I mean, in some ways, people are sensors, right? So this particular technology [talking about wearable air quality monitors] is only an addition to the whole gamut. 

However, the idea is to fuse this together to gain more. But again, you mentioned issues, but we can also see them as opportunities. Let’s say, for instance, cost and time constraints. For example, how much time do we need to spend on the ground? 

Well, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and geo AI come to the rescue. To understand what similarities exist between these different kinds of suburbs, how can we cluster them? How can we predict models for them? So, we will face not just specific challenges but also find solutions with the help of technology, including the sensing mode. 

Hamish and I have been brainstorming about what directions we want to go and how much area we should cover. How much technology should be integrated? How many predictions should be made? And even counter-checking. How do we understand whether what we predicted is correct? Because even demographics keep on shifting, right? Everything is very temporal. So, how do we understand what conditions will start building up? So you have to study multiple things to establish the correlations and say, “Okay, that's where health infrastructure needs to be strengthened,” and stuff like that. 

So, ultimately, many things are cooking in our minds, but we see this as an opportunity. Let's look from a positive angle.

Hamish R.: I think we flagged some hindrances earlier, such as time, resources, money, and politics. And they are universal. We won't get into academic game-playing because there's not much point. But that is something that needs to be considered in the equation, and we are kind of aware of that ourselves. Ownership of areas or domains of research is not an uncommon strategy for individuals to have for their own benefit. 

Nimish B.: You hear us use the word “impact” quite a lot. And I think this could be an impact-producing engagement, where it's not that our analysis only resides in the journals. No, we want to make an actual impact and define what physical changes can be made on the ground, the impact at all levels — social, economic, and spatial — and make it work together. Having changes is uncomfortable, but changes need to happen. Now, this is really, really critical. 

Isam D., ATMO: I absolutely agree.Thank you for your time and the valuable information. We truly appreciate it and look forward to a long-term partnership with the University of Technology in Sydney and doing some great projects in Australia. Thank you.

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