Romain Lacombe
2015, France
The first personal and wearable sensor to measure indoor and outdoor air pollutants

On the 21st of March public transport and parking in Paris and its surroundings became free of charge by order of the Town Hall, which at face value seems like great news for the city´s residents. However, there was an ugly alterior motive  hidden behind this ordinance: a spike in atmospheric pollution had transformed Paris´ air in one of the most unbreathable environments on earth for a period lasting several days. This is what compelled authorities to adopt extraordinary measures such as free public transport and transit restrictions for half of all cars from using the roads, not including hybrids, electric cars and commercial vehicles.  

Plume Labs raised the alarm after four consecutive days during which Paris surpassed the limits of atmospheric particular matter considered safe for human health. This company, whose aim is to inform public on the quality of the air they breathe so they can be protected, had detected that the Parisian atmosphere had even surpassed that of Beijing and Shanghai (China),  cities that usually lead international rankings of air pollution levels. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this type of contamination could be the underlying cause of millions of deaths each year from cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Plume Labs, founded in 2014, managed to alert the public to this problem thanks to the use of open data on air quality. Its creator, Romain Lacombe, who graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique (France) and holds a Masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, USA), considers that open data plays a fundamental part in the fight against pollution. For five years his work has allowed citizens to make better day-to-day decisions thanks to this type of information. This passion led him to cofound Etalab in 2011, the commission  responsible for the French government’s Open Data policies. Now, with Plume Labs, he wants make to information about urban air pollution levels available to the general public.

The first tool they have developed for this purpose is a web application that, through machine learning techniques and data analysis, offers reports in real time about current air pollution in several big cities around the world, like Los Angeles, New York, Istanbul and New Delhi. It also predicts how pollution will evolve and issues recommendations, for example, to avoid going for a run during periods of intense air pollution or postponing outdoor activities temporarily until pollution levels have lowered.

Plume Labs uses public data,  captured by air quality measuring points located all over the world (these measuring points currently track air quality in 60 cities).This data is collected and analyzed, and the results are published on their company website and on Twitter. In the next few weeks they will launch a smartphone app with their analysis and recommendation software.

To take his project even further, Lacombe wants to gather and publish more precise and “operable” information. He plans to do this using a portable device with various sensors that collect pinpointed data relating to the air quality where the person wearing it is located. Lacombe explains, "We want to use the data obtained with these devices on the streets  to create an open data platform and build a collaborative world map of air quality.”

For years, Lacombe has advised both NGOs and governments on "how to embark on open data strategies" and has defended its importance to empower citizens in conferences and other forums, includinghackathons. With Plume Labs, he wants to contribute to what he considers "the greatest health challenge of our era: our own environment," he says.

For Jean-François Carrasco, a board member of the European Institute of Digital Intelligence and judge at the MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 awards France, "the combination of portable technology and smartphones as a gateway and the user-generated network" makes Plume Labs a unique solution.