When Google inadvertently allowed its Street View cars to gather the data exhaust emanating from WiFi networks in 2006, the company's use of sensors represented a privacy violation. Lawsuits, fines, and apologies followed.
More recently, Google's Street View cars have been gathering data on industrial exhaust in an effort to advance public and environmental health. Working in conjunction with Aclima, a company that creates and operates environmental sensor networks, three Google Street View vehicles spent a month last summer driving around Denver, Colo., sampling the air.
The cars measured pollutants that affect health and the climate, including nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
In a statement, Karin Tuxen-Bettman, program manager for Google Earth Outreach, described the partnership between Google and Aclima as a way to build upon Street View's infrastructure and to test Google Maps as a platform for environmental sensing.
[ Where else does Google Street View go? Check out 10 Wildest Google Street View Adventures. ]
This fall, Google and Aclima will conduct a similar test in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"We can start to see things like the effectiveness of the timing of stoplights," said Aclima CEO Davida Herzl in a phone interview. "Idling at stoplights is actually a huge source of pollution." She suggested that data gathered in the Bay Area might suggest locations to place trees along roads, given that trees can absorb some of the nitrogen dioxide emitted by cars.
For the past few years, Aclima has been working with Google to deploy a network of environmental sensors across 21 Google offices in four different countries. The network consists of 500 Aclima sensors that evaluate 500 million data points daily, including measurements of temperature, humidity, vibration, noise, light, and particulate matter in the air.
Herzl described the sensor network as a way to take the environmental pulse of a workplace. "The information the system is generating is really a new body of knowledge about what's happening inside our buildings," she said.
Herzl said that while we spend 90% of our time indoors, what happens in the surrounding area has an effect. "When there are high traffic days, we see the influence inside," she said.
Environmental data of this sort can help a company determine when and where buildings should be ventilated, Herzl said, and can inform office design. For Google, the data provides insight into the health and productivity of its employees.
Herzl doesn't see privacy implications for this sort of data. "Air and water are shared resources," she said. "They belong to all of us. ... All of our data is in the commons."
In 2013, Aclima entered a research agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve the quality of data derived from small sensors. The firm has also been working with the EPA, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Chicago to create an even smaller particulate matter sensor.
Aclima offers not only environmental sensors tuned to the specific needs of public and private sector clients, but the managed IT infrastructure to process, analyze, and visualize gathered data.
Pointing to a recent McKinsey & Company report that projects the Internet of Things will be worth $11 trillion by 2025, Herzl anticipates that enterprises will find a variety of uses for sensor networks.