Lord Drayson, the brains behind the CleanSpace app
By Richard Lofthouse
We are sitting in a plate glass building overlooking one of the most heavily trafficked roundabouts in London, Hammersmith Broadway, whose southern flank is traversed by one of the most heavily-trafficked roads in London, the Hammersmith Flyover.
Lord Drayson levers open his MacBook and plugs in a cable. Up on a huge screen I suddenly see London as a swathe of yellow and orange, cooling to green at the edges and angrily criss-crossed by red spikes and blobs in the middle. It’s a live pollution map of London. The yellow and orange swathes show bad air, while the red bits, which include the Hammersmith Flyover, are greatly in excess of anything the World Health Organisation would deem acceptable.
For one thing, as I clarify, we have never had this map before. London has air quality sensors, but they are all placed at a uniform height and in fixed positions, and there are far too few of them. ‘The whole of Birmingham has just three…’ What Drayson has achieved is by comparison a revolution, with the potential to quickly go global.
First of all, he and his eponymous company developed a ‘tag’ – the shape and size of an iPhone weighing just 50 grams – that pairs to a smart phone and an app. The tag has a carbon monoxide sensor that passes its data to the app and henceforth up into the cloud, and is powered by a proprietary technology he calls ‘Freevolt’, which literally picks up a tiny trickle of energy from Wi-Fi signals and cellular phone frequencies, avoiding the need to ever recharge the tag or replace a battery.
If the development of the CleanSpace tag was crowd-funded, its harvest of data is now crowd-sourced. The first day of the first tag going into action was December 18th, 2015. Since then 50,800 members have joined up (as of mid-February, 2016) to create a nascent ‘movement’. Drayson says, ‘The primary purpose is to empower people. A lot of urban pollution is localized. If you cycle to work, you can usually go a quieter route, avoiding most of the damaging pollution. The tag allows you to establish exactly what the air is like, and then to make route alterations to make it better next time.’
The army of tag-carriers, meanwhile, are being incentivised along by all sorts of free coffees and reduced gym memberships that encourage them to chalk up ‘clean miles’ by cycling or walking instead of taking vehicular transport, thereby helping to reduce pollution in the first place.
The live pollution map created by the CleanSpace movement supersedes in complexity and comprehensiveness anything produced before by official measuring (‘we are working on further prototypes to measure additional pollutants such as Nitrous Oxides,’ he says later), and Drayson says he has already got clearance for sales of tags in Europe, soon the US and Canada, and down the road no doubt countries like India and China who face the biggest air quality battle of all.
Does the new level of transparency about how filthy the air is threaten, perversely, to send people back into their cars?
Drayson laughs. ‘Cars have air filters that screen out heavy particles, dust and the like,’ he says, ‘but carbon monoxide is a gas. It permeates. It is inside cars too. Any driver who thinks they are not breathing it in as much as pedestrians and cyclists is wrong. You can’t smell it or see it, remember: it is simply there.’
Apparently the CleanSpace tag works even inside a bag, or a pocket, for these same reasons. Only if it was in an air-tight container or zip-lock bag would it be ineffective.
Why is it, I ask, that air quality has suddenly sprung to life again in public discussion, when any older generation remembers the pea-soupers of the 1950s, and the Clean Air Act that followed, banning coal fires?
Drayson says that the primary reason is a succession of medical studies that have shown that the impact on human health of poor air quality is far worse than previously realized, citing the Darzi Report (Better Health for London), when two years ago Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham, chair of the London Health Commission, said he was ‘shocked to discover’ that 4,200 Londoners die as a direct result of air pollution every year – accounting for 7% of deaths compared to 5% in the wider UK.
The VW Scandal and the row over a Third Runway at Heathrow have also publicized the issue, and of course the UK has been sued by Brussels for persistently breaching air quality limits over many years.
The trouble with today’s air problems is that they are often invisible, unlike the pea soupers of the post-war years. ‘You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but it is a poisonous gas, the result of incomplete combustion. It binds to haemoglobin and enters the bloodstream…’ Nitrous oxides from diesel engines and very fine particulate matter add to an invisible but deadly cocktail. Across the EU, more than 400,000 people died prematurely in 2010 from air pollution, according to the EU Commission, typically involving strokes, heart and lung disease, exactly the same issues affecting smokers.
My final question concerns finite resources and the art of government. If Drayson were a Minister of State again with a small pot of money to spend on improving air quality, where would he spend it?
‘It would be public service vehicles first – converting the bus fleet – and then diesel scrappage to remove older diesels.’
Lord Drayson is Chief Executive of Drayson Technologies Ltd. with bases just outside Oxford and in west London. He is an external member of the University’s Council and former Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Said Business School. He served as a Minister of State from 2007-10, including as Minister for Science and Innovation, from 2008.
Images: Richard Lofthouse