If you’re not living inside a heavily populated zone, it’s likely much, much harder to gauge the air quality outside. Despite a rather quiet rollout, a new feature on Google’s search engine isn’t likely to make it easier for people to know whether they should go outside or else crack open a can of Spaceballs’ “Perri-air.”
Last year, Google started showing people their local air quality on their Nest Hub and other smart display devices, as well as Google users in India. The function has now been expanded this week to include Google search users in the U.S. and Victoria, Australia according to a Google spokesperson. Google’s systems in the U.S. aggregate data from AirNow.gov, a government site which uses EPA monitoring data, and PurpleAir, a private air quality monitoring company.
“We continue to explore ways to make authoritative information on a range of sustainability and environmental topics readily accessible and look forward to sharing more in this space soon,” a Google spokesperson told Techcrunch.
The addition was made to Google’s search engine in time for Earth Day, a holiday that has largely been coopted by big polluters in their regular greenwashing campaigns. Just like many corporations’ supposed environmental crusades, this new search engine feature might just be more hot air.
AirNow relies on state and local monitoring agencies that submit their data to the EPA. PurpleAir uses its own sensors that individuals install within their communities. This information can line up together in certain circumstances, as long as both services are actually recording data in that area. Both systems use Air Quality Index to monitor the overall healthiness of the air.
For example, AirNow’s interactive might display data for a sliver of Washington Heights in New York City or Melrose in the Bronx, but it won’t have any for Prospect Park in Brooklyn. If neither PurpleAir nor AirNow have data for an area, then Google has nothing to display.
Entire portions of some cities, but especially more rural regions, have no data related to air quality whatsoever from the EPA’s AirNow site. PurpleAir relies on individual air monitoring devices, so while it has coverage for areas that governments do not monitor, it is also only helpful where their devices are hooked up to the network.
A representative from Google was not able to confirm how it aggregates its AQI data and there are gaps for air quality in many local neighborhoods. A spokesperson did confirm the company was working on future tools for people monitoring their environmental conditions, but could not offer specifics of what those are.
Adrian Dybwad, PurpleAir’s CEO, said in an email that Google uses PurpleAir data by filtering it through the EPA’s Nowcast algorithm, which uses longer averages of air quality during stable periods and shorter averages when there’s more fluctuations in air quality. Dybwad said the data will be “closer to a three-hour average and appear lower due to the conversion factor.” The CEO also noted that by hitting the button to include air sensors will show the various PurpleAir sensors around the googled area.
Either way, despite the EPA championing the use of the data, AQI monitoring has already been shown to not be a wholly accurate way of determining whether air is safe to breathe, since peoples’ health isn’t the only consideration. While the thresholds for AQI, which are revised every five years, takes into account long-term health data, it also takes into account the impact of regulations on industry, even though even small amounts of airborne pollutants can cause harmful effects. The EPA also does not use real-time data in the case of emergencies like wildfires.
ProPublica has previously reported the EPA leaves out industrial carcinogens from its AQI readings, effectively allowing high air pollution zones around industrial facilities. These zones have been shown to dramatically increase the likelihood of health issues like cancer. As just an example from Propublica’s map, one area around Wallingford, Connecticut is shown to have 1.5 times the acceptable risk of cancer thanks to a local metal products manufacturer. Googling for Wallingford air quality does not offer any results from the search engine’s new system. Using AirNow’s system for air quality in Wallingford, using all three zip codes for the area, either comes up with no data available or “good” AQI.
If Google wants to help people monitor their air quality in a way that will help them in the day-to-day, then a much deeper investment in infrastructure is necessary to allow it.
This post was updated 4/25 at 8:30 a.m. to include comments from PurpleAir.