National News

Silicon Valley’s Hot Holiday Gift

Posted December 5, 2018 10:01 a.m. EST

Nellie Bowles, who covers tech and internet culture for The New York Times, recently wrote about the hot Silicon Valley gift this holiday season: personal air quality monitors. I talked to her about them and other things.

Jill Cowan: The idea of buying a personal pollution monitor because you don’t trust the government sounds like the most Bay Area techie thing ever.

Is that fair, though? Could these devices help correct some of the disproportionate effects of factory pollution, for instance?

Nellie Bowles: Yes and yes! It’s definitely a very Bay Area techie thing to do. And proponents argue that these devices could also help empower communities neglected by existing monitor technology. These two things are not necessarily opposed.

Some of the same impulses we see in the tech world (the distrust of government, desire for data, passion for decentralization, and obsession with personal health) can be useful for broader social movements if properly harnessed. In the case of air quality monitoring, Silicon Valley’s interests and the interests of someone living with bad air by a factory may actually align.

One of the companies you mentioned, PurpleAir, is building a network of sensors. Is the model raising questions about how all that data will be used or monetized?

Not really. First because the data an air quality monitor is collecting on the porch is nothing compared to the data an Alexa or Google Home is collecting on your kitchen counter. And in the case of PurpleAirs and the other gadgets, people who install them are hoping that these things monitor and share everything they’re picking up. The breathers movement is all about bringing more data to the table.

Say I get a personal air quality monitor for Christmas. How can I change my behavior using that information? Is there anything I can do besides stay inside?

Well, I wouldn’t just stay inside. Mostly because indoor air quality is not necessarily a ton better.

But there’s lots you can do with the information, even if you can’t do much immediately about bad air. Fans of these devices use that data to make appeals to their local governments for tighter regulation on pollution sources. They use it to make decisions on which path to take on a bike ride through the city. One person I talked to uses it to help decide whether his asthmatic son should play outside that day.