New platform reframes energy and fuel consumption as a community health issue

air pollution
CC BY 2.0 DaiLuo

Instead of talking about the number of micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter, this website aims to enable a much more relatable understanding of your air pollution exposure.

It wasn't really that long ago that smoking inside buildings, cars, and airplanes was an acceptable behavior, but thank goodness that times have changed, and we're probably all now aware of the dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke. And yet while we wouldn't let our kids or loved ones spend time riding in a sealed car with, or living with, a heavy smoker, we may not be making the connection between our personal energy use, fuel consumption, and transportation choices, and our exposure to air pollution, even though some of the health impacts are the same as breathing secondhand smoke.

We've covered air pollution and air quality issues numerous times over the years, as many environmental and health advocacy sites do, but most of the time the issue is discussed in numbers and statistics that we don't necessarily relate to, such as the amount of particulate matter in a given volume of air, it doesn't always hit home the way that perhaps it should. If we really understood how our own personal actions affect the commons (such as air and water quality), we might feel as if we can make a difference, yet so often it seems as if these things are completely out of our control. But a new web platform could help to change that, by offering real-world comparisons of air pollution exposure, and enlisting individuals, groups, and communities to take action in their personal lives to reduce the root causes of some air quality issues.

Vivergy, a social enterprise startup out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is approaching the issue of air pollution, and our personal exposure to it, from a bit different of an angle, and aims to offer actionable steps to help reduce the impact that our daily habits have on the health and well-being of everyone in their community. Here's a brief animated introduction to the concept of Vivergy:

In a nutshell, Vivergy allows individuals to gauge the impact of their own actions on community air pollution by generating a Pollution Score across four categories - air travel, home energy, vehicle use, and spending habits - and comparing it to that of others in their community and beyond. Vivergy then offers personalized suggestions for reducing that Pollution Score, along with the relative impact that those suggestions could have, and lets users track their progress, which brings in a bit of a feel-good element for users about the actions they take to improve air quality.

According to an email conversation I had with Kevin Kononenko, founder and CEO of Vivergy, the main reason for building the site is an attempt to bridge what is called the value-action gap, which is essentially the difference between what a person's values (in this case environmental and health values) and what they do. As Kevin put it, "Value action gap means that people's environmental attitudes are actually a really poor determinant of their environmental footprint. In other words: a person's environmental beliefs have little to no relation to their actual environmental impact (across a population)!"

One way that the value-action gap can be closed is through making sure that people have appropriate information on specific issues (such as the relationship between our own actions and the generation of air pollution), and Vivergy does this for air pollution in a way that most of us can understand. The platform frames air pollution exposure by comparing it to cigarette smoke exposure (secondhand smoke), in part because we're probably all aware of the dangers of smoke exposure, and because the same kind of danger exists from air pollution exposure, thanks to the presence of fine particulate matter (particulates with diameters of less than 2.5 micrometers) in both.

Vivergy uses live hourly data from a network of government particulate matter monitors (AirNow), and then uses information from public health studies about cigarette smoke exposure in order to calculate the impact of local air pollution exposure on residents. Once users get their initial Pollution Score (and perhaps do a double-take after realizing how potentially unhealthy their own local air quality is, and how their actions contribute to it), they can learn how to start making changes to reduce their air pollution footprint, as well as join with others in their community to see how much of a bigger impact they can make together.

Vivergy is free and easy to use, and could be the "first air pollution impact platform" to personalize the issue in a way that brings home the connection between our personal actions and the effects they have on the commons (air quality) we all share.

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