How can your cell phone protect you from air pollution?

A California nonprofit now lets any camera-equipped cell phone measure your exposure to black soot.

Monty Rakusen / Cultura / Newscom / File
A worker places a phone call in front of burning sugar cane in this 2009 file photo. Interested people can now get a calibration strip and a filter that absorbs black soot from California nonprofit Nexleaf Analytics. Photograph the filter next to the calibration strip, send it to them, and Nexleaf will tell you how much soot is in the air around you.

I wonder if Hayek owned a cell phone? This article about the cell phone reports that soon you will be able to determine whether you are exposed to high levels of air pollution just by waving your phone around.

"Rather than using cell phones to just snap photos of friends or the occasional celebrity sighting, phone users in California may get the chance to track levels of harmful black soot near their workplaces and homes.

Tech entrepreneurs created a simple circular filter that darkens over time as it absorbs black soot. Anyone with a basic cell phone camera can take a picture of the filter next to a calibration chart that reflects different black soot pollution levels - no smartphone required. "We don't need a fancy app for this, because we just need to be able to e-mail it or SMS it to our system," said Martin Lukac, a cofounder of the nonprofit Nexleaf Analytics. Sending the photo via e-mail or text to an online database allows the cell-phone user to get back info about black soot concentration. The power of that information is that it reflects the individual person's exposure to air pollution."

This is just one example of how information technology helps us to adapt to changing circumstances (of course I'm thinking ahead to climate change).

Another example of the future power of the cell phone is Nathan Wolfe's efforts. As I read in the New Yorker, this guy was my colleague at UCLA and he had the nerve to quit our esteemed faculty so that he could have more time for field research. He is interested in how viruses pass from animals to people in poor rural parts of the world. Here is an interview with this nerd where he celebrates that rural people with cell phones can know when an epidemic is breaking out and will change their behavior to protect themselves and this will have social benefits in slowing contagion risk.

"What's next? What are you excited about?

If the Internet is the global nervous system, and you have companies like Google pushing forward its evolution, part of what we're trying to do is create the equivalent of the global immune system.
One thing I'm excited about is mobile phones. How are we going to work with populations that are in geographically distant spots and link them together, to know when they're sick?
I'm fascinated by revolutions that come from adapting technologies like text messaging. For example, people can text message surveillance information, and we can respond and put credit on their phone, which means even populations that are very poor, if they have proximity to cell phones, can have access to healthcare."

Here is the New Yorker profile when I first heard of this guy. The New Yorker rejects my cartoon captions and thus I respect them.

Now, if you really want to learn something about the power of cell phones -- read the work of my man Robert Jensen. Most academics just sit around and recall how witty and charming they are but not this young man. He functions!

The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector

"When information is limited or costly, agents are unable to engage in optimal arbitrage. Excess price dispersion across markets can arise, and goods may not be allocated efficiently. In this setting, information technologies may improve market performance and increase welfare. Between 1997 and 2001, mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala, a state in India with a large fishing industry. Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased."

The popularity of Zagat's ratings highlights that we have a thirst for making "good decisions" and we know when we do not know the full consequences of our choices. Technologists are figuring out ways to provide us with the high frequency information we need to better handle an increasingly risky future. Are these technologies substitutes or complements of an individual's own cognitive skills?


The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on

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