Area Covid-19

Risky business? Implications of app-based risk monitoring from Covid-19 to air pollution

By Sarah Tan, University of Oxford

On 18th September 2020, I was waiting in a socially-distanced queue at Heathrow Terminal 2 as airport staff ensured that every passenger had downloaded ‘MySejahtera’ on their mobile devices. ‘MySejahtera’ is the Malaysian government’s Covid-19 app, which like its equivalents in other parts of the world, is intended to assist in the management and mitigation of the Covid-19 pandemic by helping users to monitor their health risks and locate hospitals and clinics should they require screening and treatment. Where ‘sejahtera’ evokes notions of wellbeing, the ‘My’ can refer to both the personal and the collective, with ‘Malaysia’ often being shortened to ‘MY’. Making use of this app (if a smartphone was owned) was not just an obligation to enter the country; it was also presented as a form of personal duty for the greater good of the wider community. 

Although apps, such as ‘MySejahtera’, have become commonplace around the world, as a way of facilitating pandemic strategy and response, app-based risk monitoring and mitigation was already prevalent before the Covid-19 pandemic even began. Through smartphones and wearable devices, our abilities to track and monitor intimate aspects of our bodies, habits and lives had been growing rapidly. Be it through step-counting functions, calorie-tracking apps, or recording mindfulness, we are encouraged to use these tools to ‘better’ ourselves and our lifestyles, playing into the ‘Quantified Self’ movement and its objective of using data to produce the ‘the optimal self’.

What the use of Covid-19 apps show however, is the potential to expand the Quantified Self movement to include monitoring ‘externalities’ (things outside of the self) alongside internal bodily functions and habits. In considering so, our bodies are placed within our immediate environments, and our environments within our bodies. By emphasising our belonging to a shared environment, these apps might be able to foster a sense of accountability to each other in minimising exposures to risk. With Covid-19, this is about exposure to the virus, which can guide future actions and responses, such as sheltering-in-place. Yet, this same idea can also be applied to other externalities and risks, such as pollution, which have a similar society-wide impact, but a less clear personal response associated with them, posing questions about the limits and opportunities of app-based risk monitoring and portable sensor devices.

Self-tracking personal air pollution exposure

It is exactly this set of questions that I explore in a paper recently published in Area. Through an autoethnographic account, the paper discusses my experience of routinely monitoring personal air pollution exposure, using Plume Labs’ Flow device and its accompanying app.

Personal exposure to air pollution is highly variable temporally and spatially across microenvironments, and conventional air quality data provided by static ambient monitoring stations do not adequately capture this. The emergence of portable air pollution sensors and monitoring devices of varying price points and specifications within consumer markets, has brought with it a new set of intimate and otherwise absent data to engage with. And with this data, comes important questions around the role of the Quantified Self and such sensor devices in addressing urban air pollution. 

A key finding of the research is that the device’s influence (what is sometimes called its affordances) can extend beyond the user of the device themselves. Because exposure to air pollution is a shared experience between people in shared environments, the mere presence of the device was able to instigate conversations about air quality between myself and the people around me. The availability of environmental information and its tight relation to public awareness of environmental matters and participation in decision-making is well recognised. Through this awareness, communal action can be fostered to produce a cleaner environment and healthier population

Yet air quality monitoring is “undoubtedly a complex science”, and individuals may be uncomfortable being made aware of the high air pollution level they expose themselves to regularly, preferring to bask in their ignorance for the sake of convenience. This is especially so when alternative behavioural responses that might minimise personal pollution exposure are not easily identifiable. This newly available data may therefore simply identify a problem without presenting a direct solution, placing the impetus back onto users to be creative and independently find ways to reduce their air pollution exposure. This raises important questions about whose responsibility it is to provide the external support infrastructure necessary to make this new intimate data actionable and meaningful for individuals. Additionally, it is crucial to consider the extent to which individuals are not only willing but able to reduce their air pollution exposure. The feasibility of attempts to minimise pollution exposure varies according to varying capacities of individuals and their bodies, and in turn, how they can affect or be affected by their environments. As such, ‘the optimal environment’ is bounded by the capacities of the bodies who inhabit that environment.

These questions become even more important in light of recent developments. Scientists from TU Graz in Austria have recently developed a fine particle air pollution sensor small enough to be integrated into smartphones, smartwatches and fitness wristbands. This will allow users to monitor air quality, and their exposure to it, in real time. If everyone who owns a smartphone can become an air pollution exposure self-tracker by default, the same way smartphones now track steps and distances walked, we need to better understand how individuals will engage with these data, and what the potential positive and negative effects of that might be.

Questions for the future

These questions are especially relevant in the context of the current ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the language of ‘exposure’ and ‘risk’ that is used in everyday conversations. How we think about and engage with the act of breathing has changed, and links between individuals’ long-term air pollution exposure and the severity of Covid-19 cases have been increasingly drawn.

Engaging with these kinds of digital technologies for the purpose of public and personal health also undoubtedly raises a host of data privacy concerns, whilst amplifying socioeconomic inequalities and healthcare disparities. But if the development of such technologies persists, and individuals continue engaging with these new sets of data, it is important to question what kind of behavioural responses these devices and apps intend to foster. In engaging with the environment through sensor devices and the data they provide, will individuals tend to risk-aversion or risk-mitigation, or both? At what scale will environmental issues, like urban air pollution, be understood; at a personal level of exposure risk, or at a wider level of societal and environmental detriment? Will individuals alter their behaviour to reduce personal exposure by avoiding air pollution to the best of their abilities, or act to reduce urban pollution levels, or both?

The Quantified Self movement is premised on the belief that self‐measurements allow for increased “self‐knowledge through numbers”, and is motivated by self-improvement through accountability to the self and body. Mobilising these ideas and applying them to the context of air pollution exposure, the paper expands on Quantified Self discourse to include environmental factors also. There is a clear need for collective and systemic change in addressing urban air pollution; without a collective effort, the behavioural change of individuals will not be enough to reduce pollution emissions. Engaging with the environment through these technologies therefore has the potential to make explicit the connection between personal responsibility and collective accountability, whilst also emphasising our belonging to a shared environment. In this sense, ‘the optimal environment’ can only exist when we are our ‘optimal selves’, and vice versa.


About the Author: Sarah Tan is a Malaysian postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, on the MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance programme. She recently graduated with a BA in Geography from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Sarah is interested in the lived experience of air pollution exposure and how it contributes to perceptions of ‘risk’. Having grown up experiencing episodes of haze, she is particularly interested in transboundary haze pollution in Southeast Asia, and how its recurring nature might influence behaviours and attitudes within affected communities.

Suggested further reading

Tan, SHA, Smith, TEL. (2020). An optimal environment for our optimal selves? An autoethnographic account of self‐tracking personal exposure to air pollution. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12671

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