Air Clean Up

  • Can Twitter Predict Air Quality?

Can Twitter Predict Air Quality?

Aug 07 2018 Read 1418 Times

For most people, social media is a form of keeping abreast of current affairs, following their favourite celebrities and staying in touch with friends both near and far. However, the hugely popular platform Twitter might have additional benefits with regards to air pollution - according to a study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

After analysing almost 40,000 tweets from areas of California affected by serious wildfires in 2015, the researchers were able to conclude that social media is capable of improving predictions about air quality in the vicinity. Not only could Twitter help to overcome the challenges and benefits of local air quality monitoring, it could also unite those in need of help with those best placed to provide it.

No smoke without fire

In 2015, the most populous state in America, California, was ravaged by a series of wildfires. In total, 8,745 fires tore across the territory, burning a cumulative 893,362 acres in the process. Not only did the fires cause great damage to the land, the smoke they produced also posed serious health risks to the local populace. Inhaling such smoke can cause or exacerbate existing cardiovascular conditions and have long-term ramifications on human health.

Sonya Sachdeva, a scientist working for the USDA’s Forest Service at the Northern Research Station, has been cognisant of the perils of smoke inhalation from wildfires for some time and has already conducted one study attempting to investigate social media’s ability to quantify the danger. At that time, Sachdeva assessed over 700 tweets which mentioned the King Fire of 2014 and found a positive correlation between social media messages and air quality predictability.

A new study on a new scale

For the latest study - published last month - Sachdeva collaborated with Rocky Mountain Research Station scientist Sarah McCaffrey to apply a similar approach on a larger scale. The pair filtered tweets from the whole of 2015 to pinpoint those which mentioned the most serious wildfires of the year, then analysed the 39,000 hits they were left with to determine how effective they were in disseminating knowledge about air quality in the air.

By mapping the tweets against particulate matter (PM) data collated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the pair concluded that Twitter can be an effective method of predicting air pollution levels and informing others about the situation. It also revealed that those within a close proximity to the blaze were more concerned for the safety of themselves and firefighters charged with putting it out, while those further away were more likely to query why it started.

Twitter to the rescue

It’s not the first time that social media has played a part in raising awareness around air quality. In 2015, the US embassy in China tweeted air quality readings from a machine installed on top of the embassy building in Beijing. These real-time updates prevented the Chinese government from ignoring the problem and sparked a nationwide effort to address an issue that had until that point been continually swept under the rug.

With the USDA study showing that Twitter can have an important role to play in keeping our airwaves clean, the future for social media looks to extend beyond funny cat videos and holiday snaps. Indeed, its ability to transmit key information at high speeds could even go as far as to save human lives.

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