High-tech California relies on a startup in Utah to see how smoky its air is

The company has become a case in point for the tech community’s larger frustrations with what many see as mismanagement by California’s government and national gridlock.

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By David Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO — When software engineer Kyle Peacock wanted to know how bad the air was from nearby wildfires, he didn’t turn to government monitors or even the local tech giants.

He went instead to the website of a tiny Utah company that’s the talk of the nation’s tech capital whenever wildfire smoke fills the air.

The company, PurpleAir, employs seven people and began as a home project of its founder in 2015. But by crowdsourcing data from inexpensive air quality monitors in people’s homes and businesses, the company’s online map has quickly become an essential if unlikely source of information in a region choked by smoke — and a case in point for the tech community’s larger frustrations with what many see as mismanagement by California’s government and national gridlock.

“PurpleAir is kind of my go-to for measuring the risk for going outdoors,” Peacock, 27, said in an interview.

The website is generating buzz on social media including Twitter, Facebook and Slack, where people share screenshots of the latest map as they plan how much time they’ll spend outside that day. PurpleAir’s founder, Adrian Dybwad, said he saw a 100-fold increase in traffic to his map after wildfire season began this year.

It follows a robust tradition of crowdsourcing in the tech industry, from volunteer-edited Wikipedia articles to the traffic information and mapping app Waze.

Peacock said he’s stopped using an air quality map run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others because the government’s map can’t compete with the neighborhood-level information from PurpleAir.

“What really matters is: Right where you are, what is it like?” he said.

People in California are increasingly calling for quality data about air quality as wildfires have become bigger, more common and more intense. The Kincade fire north of San Francisco forced almost 200,000 people from their homes this month, marking the third year in a row of intense fires in the northern part of the state.

The crowdsourcing approach has a certain appeal in Silicon Valley, where frustration about the inefficiency of government in California and nationally can sometimes boil over into a feeling that traditional bureaucracies can’t do anything right.

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“If you’re using @AIRNow by the U.S. gov’t EPA it is giving you inaccurate — and dangerous — information,” Caterina Fake, a venture capitalist who co-founded the photo service Flickr, tweeted on Monday.

“Air quality sensors are *yet another case* where decentralization and distributed systems outperform centralized services,” she wrote, directing people to PurpleAir.

Some of the government monitors in the Bay Area even produced incorrect readings in recent days, according to regional authorities.

The EPA said in a statement that its web traffic had also increased several orders of magnitude in the past week. The agency maintained that its instruments and those of state and local authorities remain of higher quality than PurpleAir’s, but it said it also realizes that its data isn’t available everywhere.

“In these extreme wildfire situations, we understand that residents will consult a variety of sources,” the agency said.

Finding out information related to wildfires has been difficult in other ways. The California utility company PG&E, which has been cutting power to some customers in a bid to avoid sparking new fires, admitted in a report on Oct. 25 that its website crashed several times as users looked for outage details. It pledged to improve.

PG&E has warned that rolling blackouts will continue for years, deepening the sense in California’s tech community that they can’t rely on traditional systems of authority.

“Researching power wall & home generator options due to the recent shutdowns, & the obvious global warming/wildfire trends that will eventually lead to savvy homeowners building off the grid systems,” tweeted tech investor Jason Calacanis. “Government is only getting worse in California — oh yeah, earthquakes.”

The investor James Beshara tweeted, “California, the land of no plastic straws and no electricity.”

Unofficial sources of authority like PurpleAir’s may be the beneficiaries of this pushback.

The EPA and state and local authorities have built a nationwide network to measure air quality, using instruments that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. The instruments, which receive regular maintenance and calibration to ensure accuracy, measure types of pollution such as ozone that less expensive monitors can’t detect.

But there’s a trade-off. Because the high-quality monitors are so expensive, there aren’t enough of them to give most people a detailed picture near where they live or work.

PurpleAir, by contrast, pulls data from the small, privately owned monitors that it sells to homeowners or businesses. What the monitors may lack in sophistication is made up in numbers, with some 3,000 monitors in California, according to the company. The map averages nearby monitors so that outliers aren’t as noticeable.

Robert Harley, an engineering professor who studies air quality at the University of California, Berkeley, said the “gold standard” for measuring pollution remains the government data. But he said that he has used PurpleAir, too, and that in locations where there’s a large enough number of sensors around to take an average, “they’re quite good.”

The operation started in 2015, when Dybwad said he began building the air quality monitors for himself and for neighbors to measure dust from a gravel pit near his home. Word spread around the Salt Lake City area, and he began selling them. His outdoor monitors, which use lasers to measure particles in the air, sell for $229 to $259.

Soot and other particles from smoky air can have lasting health consequences, in addition to the more immediate breathing problems, discomfort and disruption to daily life.

Outside California’s wildfire season, local government groups and environmental advocates have used the PurpleAir monitors to “democratize” pollution data.

“We didn’t set out to do better than the government’s own monitoring,” Dybwad said. “We set out to satisfy our own curiosity.”