Summer is here and so is the risk of summertime smog.

To help, Leeds city council has launched an email service to warn people when air pollution deteriorates. This joins long-established air pollution information systems that include the UK government’s webpages.

These systems have changed a lot in the past 30 years. In the 1990s pollution data had to be accessed via a free telephone service or read on our television screens through Teletext and the BBC’s Ceefax. The internet and smartphones have led to a proliferation of air pollution information systems – but how could these develop in the future?

A new study has looked at the ways Londoners can find out about air pollution. It found that a surprisingly large number of systems – 54 – were already in operation. These include near-real-time air pollution maps, measurements on webpages, apps and the mayor’s system that displays messages on bus stops.

Services run by government, meteorological agencies and universities are framed around the idea that information will help people to behave differently. However, the study found that an increasing number of commercial companies are providing data to create a market for the purchase of personal sensors, masks and air filters.

Current systems have their weaknesses. Kayla B Schulte, a DPhil candidate at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford who led the study, said: “If people are seeking air quality information associated with their exact physical location, most services are incapable of providing it.”

The University of Southampton’s Prof Sir Stephen Holgate, who was not involved in the London study, said: “People are increasingly aware of the damaging effects of air pollution, but they need information on how and what they can do about it. Any new air quality information system needs to be based on what people are exposed to in their localities, including real-time variations.”

These needs are partially being addressed by community sensor networks that are helping people to make and share measurements.

Another limitation is a narrow focus on messages to help vulnerable people protect themselves when air pollution gets high. While this is sensible, it also risks transferring responsibility for the problem to the individuals that suffer the consequences.

In looking forward we can draw on an example from the past. The first air pollution warning system, created in Los Angeles in 1955, was very different. Instead of being directed towards people who breathe poor air, it was directed towards polluters. When implemented, industries activated plans to lower boilers and use carpooling schemes, while residents were asked to drive less and stop burning rubbish.

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