New Technology And Big Data Help You Breathe Fresh Air

Editor’s note: Ben Heubl is a tech blogger, a data journalist and freelance contributor who writes about technology, entrepreneurship and digital health. Nick Saalfeld is an entrepreneur and corporate journalist specializing in healthcare. He co-founded Yoodoo Media.

Breezometer was conceived because CEO Ran Korber wanted to buy a house. He knew that air pollution caused health problems and he knew that in his native Israel — as with most developed countries — pollution is measured in real time, often at a street-by-street level. Yet, while local school and tax information was available in exhaustive detail for property buyers, there was no simple way to understand the air quality of a neighborhood.

Last March, the WHO announced staggering new numbers indicating that, in 2012, around 7 million people worldwide died as a result of air pollution exposure — twice as high as previous WHO estimates and making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

Big data is a big story for 2014-2015. But the value of big data businesses rests in many different components. Sometimes it’s collecting richer data than was previously available, or combining it. Sometimes it’s developing vizualisations that give end users new insight.

Breezometer co-founder and CMO Ziv Lautman says that the company’s initial contribution is doing the heavy lifting of obtaining and deciphering air quality data.

“The data is scattered,” he says. “It comes from many different sources and usually it’s just like a spreadsheet. Different countries have different standards for pollution measurement; in fact sometimes consumers only get told that pollution is “moderate.” That’s not only uninformative, it may mean something different somewhere else.”

The Breezometer team members are, first and foremost, environmental engineers and have used their professional training to make raw air quality data useful.

An app exists for Israel, and a U.S. version is now being launched at the Web Summit 2014; but the company intends to apply its data either in further in-house app developments or by selling the data to third parties.

“We can tell you which park is healthier to play with your kids in, and we could also help your favorite running app decide which route through town will give you the healthiest exercise,” says Lautman. And then of course there is the original real estate proposition. High on Breezometer’s list is a weather app that includes air quality along with the usual weather information.

The rapidly developing mobile health and wearables sector is also a rich opportunity.

“Wearables help us to summarise our day — how much you have slept, or walked,” says Lautman. “Breathing and air quality should be a part of the ‘Quantified Self’ revolution; and just as wearables applications can nudge people to exercise more or watch their diets, we have granular enough data to give users helpful personalized recommendations — right down to closing the windows or putting the air conditioning on.”

Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health says that the risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes — which the American Heart Association says are responsible for one in three U.S. deaths. For Lautman, scaling in the U.S. might be a smart move — provided the lived environment can become a priority.

Breezometer is not the only team to spot an opportunity. Other startups are making it their mission to solve air-quality problems. Tel Aviv startup Oxie, expected to launch with a crowdfunding campaign in December, is said to be the first wearable device to effectively purify air without masking your face. Co-founder Sarah Tulin says that it defends the user against all sorts of pollutants: dust, smoke, pollen and even toxic gases, viruses and bacteria.

“Oxie will launch with a neck-worn device, which will be small enough to fit under your collar, letting the user breath purified air without sacrificing style or comfort,” she says.

Similar to Breezometer, Oxie also wants to solve the wider public health problem by applying sensors on the device to track air quality first-hand for the individual user, again delivering a personal air-quality update via an interactive mobile application.

Nine months in, Breezometer is out of “garage mode” and has secured investment from Jumpspeed Ventures and Entrée Capital. It remains a B2B business for now; the launch app is effectively a demo for the data sales business with an API launching shortly to allow third-party applications, devices and wearables to use the data.

“We’re B2B2C for now”, says Lautman, “but the application of our data to people’s lives may mean we end up connecting directly with customers.”

Why the uncertainty? The sector is much larger than it looks. At a time when health records are being digitized (with greater and lesser degrees of effectiveness in different countries), it’s interesting how little focus there has been on adding validated external data to the citizen health record or personal applications. We already know that big data has lots to offer public health decision-makers, but this could be carried through to individuals; and Lautman says that air quality is just the start.

“Records are kept for all sorts of environmental factors, many of which only get interest from environmental engineers like us,” he says. People experience different degrees of noise, light and additives (anything from harmful pollutants to health-enhancing fluoridation in water), for example. All of these can change our health profiles, and would be a welcome addition to personal health advice services or formal medical records.

“We want to be the environmental health source. People never talk about environmental knowledge as being a part of the healthcare information space, and yet it could be really useful,” says Lautman.