Sensing a change

Utrecht Exposome Hub

Erik Tielemans

Each one of us can become a mobile environmental measuring station. With today’s smartphones, wearable sensors and Bluetooth and wifi-enabled data transmission, we can increase the precision and volume of information about our immediate surroundings. Imagine that in real-time, you can re-route yourself, not only according to traffic patterns, but also to avoid highly congested air pollutant zones.

The Utrecht Exposome Hub connects the various disciplines necessary to design, develop, implement and analyze environmental measuring capabilities and data. Our innovation program in the Department for Environmental Quality at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) brings a strong technological aspect to the hub, as our goal is to improve and validate sensor technology that can assess all kinds of environmental factors, such as air and water quality, noise, radiation and light pollution and assess the way these factors impact our health. We’re interested in how your immediate surroundings may affect your well-being.

Personalizing exposure assessment

Currently, the RIVM has several large networks that measure environmental factors like air quality via approximately 50 big reference stations in the Netherlands, the Dutch National Air Quality Monitoring Network. These stations can tell us about air pollutant levels in general at the measuring location but aren’t able to provide local differences when a person physically changes locations during the day.

With today’s technology, just about everyone can measure environmental exposure using low-cost sensors that they themselves can place in their gardens or on their bikes. This would allow us to collect information about local environments in real-time without any disturbance to our daily routines.

Unfortunately, current sensors do not yet produce measurements with an accuracy comparable to that of the large reference stations. So, how can we use these new technologies and cope with uncertainties? If we deploy a swarm of sensors in small areas, can we then produce an accurate estimate of the air quality? How do we best communicate our measurements and results? How do we collect and interpret environmental information jointly with citizens (also called citizen science)? How do we relate our environmental data sets to other data sets, for example, health information?


Each one of us can become a mobile environmental measuring station

Making the invisible, visible

Our research tries to address these questions and we calibrate and validate different types of sensors before conducting feasibility studies. We also build computer models to assist in data measurements and interpretation, before assimilating sensor information into maps of the Netherlands. In general, the quality of air is invisible, and most people don’t actively think about it on a regular basis. You may decide to ride your bike because it reduces exhaust fumes emitted from your car and is good exercise. But have you stopped to consider that biking through certain areas may also be harmful to your health?

Living Lab Air

One example of the types of projects the Utrecht Exposome Hub is involved in is the website that displays air quality at the Utrecht Science Park. This is a first example of joint experiments related to environmental sensor technology within the hub and includes the RIVM and the Institute for Risk Assessment (IRAS) at Utrecht University, and together, we’re also developing an application for processing data provided by environmental sensors.

So, if you look carefully at some of the buildings and bus stops, you can spot up to 20 mushroom-shaped sensors that we’ve developed. These link directly to the LivingLabAir website and visitors can see up-to-date and real-time air quality conditions such as fine dust and nitrogen dioxide. Hopefully, this will inspire us, as a community to consider our own contribution to air quality, and to stimulate actions to reduce pollution.

Erik Tielemans, PhD
Head, Research and Development Environmental Quality
National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)

More information
Utrecht Exposome Hub