Visualizing Global Air Quality

An innovative installation at London Design Festival transforms UBS Evidence Lab big data into a striking portrait of global air quality

What if you could see air pollution? An innovative installation by Chinese-British designer Elaine Yan Ling Ng makes it possible to do just that, visualizing air pollution levels in 68 major cities worldwide. Commissioned by UBS, ‘Nexus’ is powered by a feed of big data from a set of more than 8,000 air quality monitoring stations worldwide, analyzed by UBS Evidence Lab, a specialist alternative data provider within UBS. The installation was presented as part of London Design Festival from 14-22 September 2019.

The World Health Organization has identified air pollution as a "public health emergency" and, as international awareness of the issue has increased, air quality is becoming more regulated to alleviate the situation. “I would like to see the design installation as a reminder to everyone who cares about the environment”, the designer explains.

Ng has been experimenting with using cutting-edge textile technology to explore such sustainability issues in her work, often following the design principle of biomimicry - mimicking the behavior of nature. In this case, 'Nexus', is inspired by networks of forest trees and how they communicate with one another, much like data, through a multitude of interconnected unseen networks and models.

Ng uses a very fine paper pulp to create her sculptural weaves, fusing organic materials with technology to visually display information on the installation using individually-controlled LED lights. The audience controls the experience, choosing the cities and watching as the installation illuminates or dims illustrating how the air quality has changed in the selected locations over the past three years.

For Ng the impact of global air quality on the world is a vital issue: “Air is a fundamental element in our daily living. We are breathing the same air, but in different cities it smells and tastes different. If you break it down and look into it, big data represents numbers and figures that can inform design and help us to improve the way that we can live."

'Nexus' aims to provide an engaging visual reminder of this significant global problem. By inviting the public to interact with the information, 'Nexus' seeks to present the data on a human scale.

After touring to Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong, the latest iteration of the installation was re-programmed for display at UBS' office in Broadgate, London with enhanced AQI data from additional locations worldwide.

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