Thursday, 23rd May 2019
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Big Data helps save the planet

New study leverages mobile network data to estimate levels of carbon emissions and air pollution in cities, an approach that could substantially reduce the cost of implementing the Paris Agreement.

Big data analytics company and ETH Zurich spin-off Teralytics, Telef?nica NEXT and sustainability solution provider South Pole Group conducted a study in Nuremberg, Germany that reveals the analysis of mobile network data as an effective way to estimate CO2 and NOX emissions in urban areas at very low cost. To achieve this, Teralytics examined aggregated and anonymised data, which is generated when mobile devices communicate with Telef?nica’s mobile communication cells while users make calls, send texts or browse the internet. Teralytics was able to refine this raw data into human mobility patterns to understand how the different modes of transport, for instance trains or cars, are frequented. Combining this information with data on the emissions of the different transport modes, the three entities were able to estimate air pollution and GHG emissions in the city.
As each form of transportation produces a unique amount of CO2 and NOX emissions, understanding urban mobility patterns is vital to understand the source of emissions. The study in Nuremberg used this information to estimate with up to 77 per cent accuracy the concentration of air pollutants in the city. These findings encourage further exploration of how big data can be used to understand and ultimately solve environmental issues such as air pollution in cities across the world. This is particularly interesting with regards to the lower cost of analysing and interpreting data compared to the higher cost of production and maintenance of elaborate measuring stations. The novel approach could thus allow an ongoing analysis on a nationwide scale.
“While our contemporary urban lifestyles result in the generation of harmful greenhouse gasses, it also generates large amounts of behavioural data. Our mission at Teralytics is to use this data for the benefit of society,” says Georg Polzer, CEO of Teralytics. “Our findings from Nuremberg showed that this data can be used to give city planners insights into how human mobility contributes to pollution. This is a vital part to efficiently design and implement clean air and low carbon strategies. We are looking forward to further exploring this opportunity.”
Using a three-level process, the fully anonymised and aggregated data was first transformed into movement flows by the data scientists at Teralytics, identifying over 1.2 million transportation routes during the analysed time period. The sustainability solution expert South Pole Group then used an atmospheric model to estimate air pollution levels caused by the usage of the different modes of transportation, taking into account meteorological data and information on the respective traffic carriers’ emission levels from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMUB). In the third step, the accuracy of the method was examined by comparing the findings with existing data from air pollution measuring stations. The values measured at these stations were found to correlate up to 77 per cent with those from the Teralytics’ calculations.


The results of this pilot study in Nuremberg constitute a sound basis to further develop the methodology. Following its success, the consortium was able to secure financial support from Climate KIC’s Low Carbon City Lab (LoCaL), an initiative that brings together cities, business, academia and NGO’s to deliver high environmental and societal impact. With this backing, the research partnership will expand and improve the methodology, focusing on short travel routes and taking into account local emission factors like airports, large-scale events, and types of vehicles on the road (i.e. electric cars and SUVs). Moreover, the influence of factors such as traffic jams and red lights will be taken into account in order to make even more accurate estimations of the air pollution levels in a city.
“The results from this pilot study exceed our expectations,” says Maximilian Groth, responsible for Business Development & Partnerships at Teralytics. “We are confident that we will soon be able to scale this product to cities worldwide to support urban planners in making our air cleaner and achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement at the lowest possible cost.”
This research follows other successful studies on usage of mobile network data, including a smart data analysis for transport in Stuttgart by Teralytics, Telef?nica Germany, and Fraunhofer IAO.
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