“Mummy, can I play outside today?”

A month ago, the World Health Organisation claimed that over 1 million lives per year could be saved around the globe if all cities managed to push the amount of a particularly insidious form of air pollution, particulates less than 10 μm in size, down below 20 μg per cubic metre of air. WHO made the statement as it released its first global database of urban air pollution, which includes data from nearly 1100 cities across 91 countries.

The database, available for a free download from the WHO website, offers fascinating insights. Some are obvious: poorer cities tend to be more polluted. Some are counterintuitive: giant New York fares quite well (few residents drive). And some are surprising: desert cities show high levels of pollution, irrespective of their wealth. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Al Ain all report high values, reflecting the unique challenges of living and working in a dusty desert environment.

The data published by WHO is a snapshot. But, as the popularity of smartphone apps like “pollution” or the European Environment Agency's www.eyeonearth.eu website shows, real-time data is what people who seek to answer everyday questions really want: what is the air like today? Should I keep my children from playing outside?

Answering these questions is harder than it sounds. A network of measurement stations must be set up. They must be close enough to the questioning person to offer readings that have value. Local variations play an important role: are you near a highway, or downwind from an industrial plant? Not surprisingly, the “Pollution” app only offers detailed data for a limited number of locations in developed countries, and the eyeonearth.eu website shows large data gaps even in western European countries.

In Abu Dhabi, though, Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) has embarked on a major effort to close this gap. It projects to expand its air quality monitoring network by doubling the number of monitoring stations it operates. It is encouraging other operators, such as utilities, to link their monitoring stations into the network.

The increasing granularity of the data coming from a bigger network of monitoring stations will do more than inform the public in real time (at www.adairquality.ae). In the context of the emirate’s rapid urbanization and industrialisation, it will allow planners to better model the impact on air quality of different development scenaria. And the experience being gained in the process will be precious to the region, too. EAD hopes to eventually extend the air quality monitoring network to the whole Gulf region. It is already beginning to expand beyond Abu Dhabi’s boundaries: negotiations with Dubai are proceeding apace.