On an average day in 1998, statistician David Fairley was walking up a busy San Francisco street to pick up his son from preschool. Traffic was heavy, and halfway to the school, he started to feel weak and dazed.

“Actually, a homeless guy saw me and helped me to the school,” Fairley said. “[People at the school] had me lie down for a bit.”

Fairley felt better after a rest, but the school administrators insisted he go to the hospital. On the way there, he had a heart attack.

Years earlier, as a newcomer to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Fairley had been asked to vet new research that correlated exposure to particulate matter and increased mortality rates—particularly deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory incidents. At the time, all of the available science had been conducted by one researcher in London.

“I thought, the Bay Area isn’t like London at all; it’s much colder and wetter there, and people there might already have respiratory issues,” Fairley said. “And honestly I set out thinking, I’m gonna prove this guy is wrong.” Fairley repeated the study in California’s Santa Clara County and, to his amazement, his results were almost exactly the same as the London researcher’s.

Since that time, several other studies have replicated Fairley’s results, including a long-term American Cancer Society study. There is now conclusive evidence that correlates particulate matter levels and daily mortality rates. Shortly after his heart attack, Fairley also uncovered studies that linked exposure to ultrafine particulate matter—the sort you get next to a busy street with a lot of traffic— and a coronary episode within one to two hours.

“Even though there were, of course, other factors, I believe walking up that street might well have contributed [to my heart attack],” he said. “Ultrafine particles are so small that they’re fairly unstable. They don’t stick around. They agglomerate into bigger particles or else diffuse out. If you look at the gradient from roads, concentrations of ultrafine particles are really a lot higher on a busy street. So it really could make a difference to move one or two streets over.”

Nonetheless, Fairley continued to walk the same busy route between his home, work, and his kid’s school for years. “It finally dawned on me after several years that I really should shift my route to less busy streets, so I did,” he said.

Did you catch that?

Even as an expert in particulate matter who had experienced its impact first-hand, it took Fairley years to adjust his routine according to the information he had. That is a fundamental issue when it comes to myriad decisions affecting both health and the environment in cities around the world. It’s not necessarily enough to have all the information we need to make good choices; rather, we need to have the right information in the precise moment in which we are making a decision.

Wearables—wristbands, watches, clothing, or in some cases, pollution masks with built-in wireless sensors—may be part of the solution. Capable of unobtrusively collecting all sorts of data on the street, comparing them with historical data from government, academic, and other sources, and pushing information to the user at relevant times, this new generation of gadgets promises to provide more current, actionable information than laptops or even smart phones.

Portable Pollution Detectors
Existing wearables, ranging from the FitBit (a sleeker version of a pedometer) to the Pebble watch to Google glass headsets to the forthcoming iWatch, largely fall into two camps: Those that provide information (Google glass, “smart” watches), and those that collect information (FitBit, the now-discontinued Nike Fuel Band). The next generation of wearables aims to combine those two functions, collecting personal data and then analyzing it against various other data sets to provide customized information and context-based suggestions.

So in the pollution case, for example, a wristband could vibrate or flash red and let the wearer know that he’s walking through an area with a high concentration of ultrafine particulates and suggest a different route. That could provide not only individual health benefits but also a growing awareness among the public of the link between pollution and health. Increasingly, wearable companies are also working to provide data to academic researchers and governments. For example, the same wearable device could feasibly indicate both a person’s pollution exposure and his various potentially related health effects, which could go a long way toward helping air pollution management districts set limits and create meaningful policies. Privacy concerns have largely impeded the flow of data to government agencies, and for good reason, but government officials and developers are working toward a privacy-protected system in which anonymous data could be shared with the government to mutual benefit. More on that later.

Jonathan Lansey is a data engineer at wearable tech company Quanttus, which is working on a souped-up wristwatch that measures and analyzes its wearer’s vital signs—heart rate, blood pressure, temperature—in response to everything from exercise and sleep to air pollution and weather. In keeping with many of the newer entrants to the wearables space, the company is also actively pursuing relationships with academic institutions, to which it plans to supply aggregate data. So far, efforts to supply data to government agencies haven’t amounted to much due to a combination of bureaucratic inefficiencies, privacy concerns, and mismatched data systems. Instead, Lansey said Quanttus’ plan is to get its user data to academics who can use it to help inform the peer-reviewed studies government agencies are referencing when crafting policy.

“I think that’s going to be a large branch of our contribution; we’re building a business here, but there’s an altruistic component, too,” said Steve Jungmann, vice president of product management for Quanttus. In addition to providing data, the company is also allocating devices for use in various studies. “We’re across the street from MIT, so we get to talk to people there with some fantastic ideas around biometric monitoring as attached to x, whether it be air quality, emotions, the ability to perform under pressure, any number of things,” he said.

Talking Trees
Most “smart city” technology aims to eliminate humans from the equation, to design around human error. Wearable designers have almost the opposite aim: to arm humans with the right information at the right time, integrating them into the network of a smart city and making them part of the solution. Getting citizens to better understand the dangers of air pollution and to adjust their lives accordingly is just one example.

Frog, an international product strategy and design firm headquartered in San Francisco, was an early entrant to the wearables space, designing prototypes for Motorola back in 2002. In 2012, the design firm set a team of designers across its various international offices the task of coming up with eight different concepts for the wearables of the future, compiled in the brief “Wearable Technology and the Connected City.” About half were technologies that would deliver an environmental benefit. One—a face mask equipped with sensors that measure air pollution, designed by the Shanghai office—may be on the market soon; the rest are still just concepts, but they have helped to spark conversations with both product companies and government agencies about what’s possible when you combine civic aims with wearable technology.

In one instance, the firm’s New York City team set out to make using public transit easier. They designed a wristband called Relay (see image below) that would integrate data from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and display it in real time. So if, say, you’re trying to decide whether to hop in a cab or take the subway, Relay will tell you as you’re approaching the subway station which trains are arriving when.

“It’s all about putting the data where it’s most actionable and useful,” said Mayo Nissen, interactive designer in Frog Design’s New York office. “It’s all well and good to look up when trains are coming on your laptop before you leave, but putting that data in your hands right where you’re making the decision, on the street, is quite powerful.”

Such technologies could feasibly increase ridership on public transit in smart cities because they make citizens’ commutes more convenient and enjoyable.

Some of Frog’s other concepts focus more on using wearables to make environmental issues more tangible for people. The “Tree Voice,” for example, was a network of displays on trees throughout the city of Austin, Texas, that would illustrate the effects various environmental factors—drought, pollution, chemical exposure—had on the tree, via displays attached to trees and a mobile app that would display what was happening with trees throughout the city (see images below).

“One thing we really dug into was the fact that the environment—the living, breathing physical environment—is collecting and storing information about climate change and pollution all the time,” said Eric Boam, senior interaction designer at Frog in Austin. “If you cut open a tree you can see years where there was a lot of water and years where there wasn’t much, and you can see where pollution started to get worse. We wanted to take that information that the environment already collects and display it to people so they could see it more clearly and interact with it in a way that changes their behavior.”

In a similar vein, Carlos Elena-Lenz, principal technology strategist for Frog, based in the firm’s Shanghai office, recently worked on a wearable-tech clothing product that could detect changes in the atmosphere—everything from temperature to smog—and change color accordingly. As wearers walk down the street, their jacket will change color based on various things happening in the environment. “Something like that becomes a conversation piece, and it lets people learn from each other,” he said.

Well-worn Truths
As with most technological innovations, there are still some hurdles for wearables to overcome, and some potential dark sides as well. For all the hype around wearable technology, particularly in the health and fitness realm, the current generation of gadgets has pretty limited functionality. The popular FitBit wristband, for example, pairs a basic accelerometer with low-energy Bluetooth and a mobile app. The accelerometer measures motion patterns to determine calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, and sleep. Its altimeter also measures stairs climbed. If you’re not taking steps, though, the FitBit’s not measuring your activity: It cannot tell the difference between a day spent rock climbing and a day spent on the couch. Similarly, many of the gadgets that claim to monitor sleep and activity levels are wildly inaccurate, a fact that has provided the platform for more than a few critical blog posts of the whole wearables endeavor.

“A lot of wearables are collecting data just for the sake of it, with no context or analysis. We call it so-what data,” said Quanttus’ Jungmann.

As wearable companies get better about not over-promising and as devices with more accurate, robust sensors hit the market, that’s likely to improve. Algorithms that do a better job of analyzing and contextualizing data will also make the devices more powerful—but only with the cooperation of government and academic researchers. To date, it’s been extremely difficult for technology companies to integrate big public data sets with their tools. That’s not necessarily because local, state, and federal governments and academic institutions don’t want to share their data. More often it’s because they tend to have fairly messy data sets from legacy systems. According to Lansey, though, that’s starting to improve. In Boston, for example, the city government recently kicked off an open-data initiative, asking local developers what sort of data they’d like and in what format.

“Eventually we’ll be able to get more population-level analysis, so we’ll be able to correlate a whole city’s body responses to public weather data or pollution levels,” Lansey said. “That will make it easier for us to provide answers and suggestions with more statistical reliability.”

“Boston is a great example of a city really getting this right,” said Elena-Lenz. “They are hosting town hall meetings with the development community and really getting their input. Conversations around transit data, for example, started happening a year or so before they released an API [application programming interface], and because they’d worked with developers so much ahead of time, when that data was released, a whole bunch of apps came out that really supported public transit.”

Boston’s not the only example of a government getting wise to the benefits of sharing data with wearable tech developers. Last year, when the federal government introduced Project Open Data—an open-source repository of data for federal, state, and local agencies that anyone can use or contribute to, hosted on GitHub, a web-based hosting service for software development projects that use the Git revision control system—President Obama signed an executive order that made open, machine-readable data the new default for government information. Since then, 50 state and local governments have posted 112 open datasets on the site and there’s been a mad rush to find innovative new ways to use all that new government data, including a National Day of Civic Hacking, open-data hackathons in cities such as San Francisco, D.C., and Portland; and new data portals for various cities and states, including Connecticut, Las Vegas, and South Bend, Ind.

Moving data the other way—from wearable devices to government databases—has proven to be more difficult. Users are, understandably, concerned about privacy. According to a recent survey commissioned by IT hosting company Rackspace, only 22 percent of Americans would be willing to share location data with a government entity. Thirty-three percent would be willing to share healthcare data with either a government agency or a healthcare provider. So far the primary way governments are using data from wearables is to determine what sorts of data and APIs they should be providing to wearables developers. In the state of Utah’s Google Glass pilot, for example, state IT staff are keeping tabs on which apps tend to be used most so that they can figure out which data sets and APIs would be most useful to Google Glass app developers.

In the healthcare realm, nearly 42 million wearable, wireless sports, fitness, and wellness devices are expected to ship worldwide in 2014, according to Jonathon Collins, principal analyst specializing in wearable technology for ABI Research, a market research and market intelligence firm based in New York. Collins said that, while millions of people are tracking their own health and fitness data, and most healthcare providers are interested in accessing and using that data in some way, users’ privacy concerns, combined with the proprietary nature of electronic healthcare records, has been a major stumbling block. “If you’re automating the collection of health data, it would be good to have somewhere to store it and integrate it with your other healthcare records,” he said. “To do that, the e-healthcare records are key and can largely take the blame for the slow uptake of these devices so far.”

As data sources grow, privacy and health concerns about how that data is collected and shared will continue to grow too. While every wearable technology company is quick to provide details on how it anonymizes data and the strict security of its cloud storage, it’s hard not to imagine that more fine-grained data—even in the aggregate—will lead to insurance companies raising premiums or governments and companies spying on consumers even more than they already do.

From Cool Gadgets to Positive Platforms
Beyond any issues with the availability and fidelity of data, wearables face a much more basic hurdle: commercial viability. Wearables have existed and succeeded for years in the healthcare space; the pacemaker is the prototypical wearable. But despite all the buzz around the billions of dollars to be made in wearables, many of the gadgets coming out now and over the next year will likely not pass the litmus test of economic viability in the notoriously difficult and competitive consumer electronics space.

But while individual wearables may not survive, the market’s momentum doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. And if—as futurists predict—we’re all likely to be wearing four to six devices in the not-so-distant future, it’d be nice if at least a few of them improved our health and the environment.

“Right now, it’s mostly about cool gadgets,” said Nissen. “It would be great in the future to see wearables become a piece of technology that has a real impact on people’s lives without it being this very conscious thing. The bigger picture gets exciting when the smaller picture—the devices themselves—get less exciting.”

We probably haven’t scratched the surface of what wearable technology can (and can’t) do, and to what degree it can be integrated into the fabric of a smart city and deliver environmental benefits.

“One of the ultimate goals is that any one of these wearable technologies could be built out as a platform, just like PCs were,” said Boam. “We didn’t totally know what we’d get from them, either, but once they were common enough, stable enough, and powerful enough, they were able to do really awesome things.”

This article was produced by Climate Confidential and released for re-use under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.