Growing up in Vancouver, Kevin Hart was spoiled by the fresh mountain air. It wasn't until the electronics expert started working on industrial job sites that he realized how relatively good he'd had it.
"There was a lot of harmful, carcinogenic stuff on site, so I was always aware of what I was breathing in where the people around me weren't and, as a result, not protecting their health," he says.
The more he looked into general air quality, the more passionate he became about the subject. Soon, colleagues began to approach him with their concerns.
"People would go to Asia and tell me they couldn't see in front of their face because of pollution and the government wasn't doing a whole lot about it."
Mr. Hart toyed around with the idea of creating his own air purifier system, one of those costly retail units that clean the air in a contained space.
During his research, he met Vancouver nurse, Laura Moe, who saw pollution's unfortunate endgame: She'd have a lot of patients with respiratory issues, hooked up to oxygen tanks in the hospital, Mr. Hart recalls.
The pair, later joined by social entrepreneur, Alim Jaffer, realized the technology on its own would be little more than another pricy band-aid on a growing environmental disease, with the cost filtering down to the individual instead of the governing bodies elected to do something about it.
They felt if they could invent a wearable device that collected constant data on air pollution levels, the public would have a data-driven reference point to take to their local officials.
"An individual can do something about their own indoor air quality. As an individual it's hard to do the same outdoors. But as an individual part of a larger ecosystem of data, a crowdsourced movement, it becomes just as powerful," Mr. Hart says, noting the data synchs with the GPS sensor in smartphones to create a map of the individual's immediate area.
After two years of tinkering in the lab, the team, now operating under the name TZOA, launched to the public in May from its San Francisco headquarters.
TZOA bills itself as the world's most advanced enviro-tracker. It's a small electronic sensor that clips onto a backpack or purse and calculates the volume and quality of air particles in the immediate area. It works by drawing air particles into the device with a tiny fan, where the particles pass across a laser beam path.
As the particles cross the laser, light scatters from the particles onto a light detector. The detector then counts every time it sees a flash, and uses that information to calculate the number of particles that have passed by. From there, the device can qualify the air quality based on a government-standard scale of one-to-10.
"We also look at the intensity of each beam of light and if it's a really intense beam we know that particle was larger. The larger particles are actually less harmful because they can't get into your lungs and do damage like the smaller particles can. But the larger particles are typically things like pollen and things that can irritate you, especially if you're asthmatic or have allergies," Mr. Hart explains.
The device has different functions depending on where it's used. A good indoor function would be to measure the amount of smoke in the air after using the stove, or checking for mold or asbestos levels in the basement instead of spending $1,000 for a professional assessment.
But it's the tracker's outdoor use that suggests the greatest disruption.
"When I'm one person collecting data in my area and there are thousands collecting data in my city, you start to build this granular map and when you look at the map, the authorities can look at that data and rally to create some policy around the fact that this restaurant is venting out pollution out onto the street," Mr. Hart says, noting the sensors can also pick up temperature, atmospheric pressure, UV exposure, and humidity.
"There are all sorts of micro-pollution examples where nothing's being done because there's no data."
While Mr. Hart's goals are ambitious and idealistic, he has the backing of some serious people. Recently, University of British Columbia professor Michael Brauer, director of the bridge program at the School of Population and Public Health, took TZOA's device to a number of underdeveloped countries where he's studying the link between high death rates and wood burning in small huts.
During his research, Dr. Brauer will compare how effective TZOA's technology measures air quality compared to more expensive tools. With a $99 (U.S.) price point, it's not an unrealistic investment for local governments.
Meanwhile, city cyclists, transit riders, and pedestrians have a measurable way to evaluate the air they inhale during their daily commute.
That means as they wait for their city councilors to take active environmental measures, which may amount to wishful thinking in many parts of the world, at least the car-free cohort can plot a less smoggy route to the office.