Google Earth Has Cars Sniffing U.S. Cities to Guard Your Health

A Google street view car in Berlin on Nov. 7, 2016.

Photographer: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

As firefighters fought to control deadly wildfires north of San Francisco last month, a small unit of Alphabet Inc.’s Google had a more modest goal. It had employees driving cars around loaded with air-monitoring equipment to measure how badly the smoke was polluting the air. 

The conclusion: a lot.

Google Earth Outreach is a decade-old research unit that helps nonprofit groups, scientists and governments take advantage of mapping technology to clean the air and improve public health -- or, at least, understand what the problems are. 

On Tuesday, the project released street-by-street pollution maps of San Francisco, Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley. Previous work measured air pollution in Oakland, and methane leaks in Boston, Indianapolis and other cities.

Data drives U.S. environmental laws, yet the tools which everyone from the Environmental Protection Agency on down uses to identify pollution hot spots are outdated. 

"They miss what’s on the ground," said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Google Earth Outreach’s project manager. "They miss what people breathe."

Tuxen-Bettman said she believes that distributed air-pollution monitoring on vehicles and through low-cost sensors can help communities identify and fix pockets of bad air, and help governments write laws to target the real problems.

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