Real-time Air-quality App Ready to Change People’s Mindset on Pollution
Air pollution is a major issue in Hong Kong, but most residents believe they can do nothing to make their lives healthier: PRAISE-HK seeks to change that by empowering individuals and communities.
The complaints come thick and fast when smog descends on Hong Kong and people worry about the effect of the dirty air on their health. However, many don’t realize they are not safe when the air appears clear: significant damage to the respiratory system is caused by PM2.5 – invisible air pollutants with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. Road traffic is a direct source of PM2.5, and in Hong Kong we are also affected by shipping emission; secondary particles are the result of chemical reactions of gases such as sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.

What can the public do to protect themselves? Do we just have to “put up with it”? Enter PRAISE-HK, a personalized real-time air-quality mobile app system that enables people to plan their daily activities based on state-of-the-art technology so as to reduce exposure to air pollution. “The key feature of this app is that it empowers people,” says Dr Michelle Wong of HKUST's Institute for the Environment. “We believe this app will change the mindset of the public.” 
The app – which will be downloadable to mobile devices – helps make informed decisions that will benefit the health and well-being of residents. PRAISE-HK is big data-driven: the system gathers information from a range of sources including local and regional air quality monitoring stations; meteorological statistics such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction; urban informatics, including building height and density; and real-time traffic information. The data is then used to build a powerful model of street-level air quality that users can access to enable them to make choices:  to visit an indoor gym rather than run in the park, for example, or change their regular commute to a route that avoids heavy traffic where pollution is at its worst. Many believe a trip to a country park will provide them with fresh, clean air, but that is not always the case: the presence of ozone, for example, generated by sunlight, heat and vegetation can damage lung tissue – again, the app will provide users with real-time information.

This world first is being developed by a HKUST team led by Professor Alexis Lau, with funding from the HSBC 150th Anniversary Charity Program, and involvement from interested parties including Hong Kong Asthma Society, Hong Kong Institute of Allergy, and Clean Air Network. It is to be launched in three phases, starting in 2018. 

But what makes it unique?  “PRAISE-HK is comprehensive and precise: it provides figures on all significant pollutants, unlike other systems. It also gives information on the quality of indoor air derived from data for outdoors – the readings will depend on the ventilation system used in individual buildings, as some are more efficient than others at filtering out bad air. The app integrates exposure from your entire day, from home to work and back, and allows you to assess your complete exposure,” says Dr Wong. PRAISE-HK also integrates the fourth dimension: time. The app will forecast air quality down to street level or in specific areas for up to 72 hours in advance. 

Dr Wong highlights another unique aspect: the third phase, due to be implemented in 2021, will be dynamic. “Active users will be able to share their health details, allowing them to receive personalized health alerts and recommendations in both real-time and predictions. For example, if you are more sensitive to particular pollutants, the recommendations will help you avoid them.” 

On a community scale, the app will assist government and other parties devise strategies to minimize the adverse effects of air pollution. Users will generate a considerable amount of scientific data that can be used to make evidence-based decisions; among the targets are policy makers, urban planners, property developers, property managers and schools. The beneficiaries are you, me and the next generation!

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