Knowledge is power

Clerkenwell-based data company Centric Lab is aiming to give citizens as much information about their environment as possible

A Clerkenwell tech company has launched an app that hopes to improve public health and empower citizens to better understand hazards in their environments. Centric Lab – which describes itself as a ‘neuroscience research lab’ – has launched a digital tool that offers a rapid postcode analysis of environmental pollutants and deprivation data. 

Called Right to Know, its aim is to offer ‘health justice’ by connecting citizens with environmental information in their communities. “Most of us do not know if the places we live could be making us sick,” says Centric Lab founder Josh Artus. 

“This tool gives us the right to know if there are environmental factors in our neighbourhood that could be affecting our health.” Key issues in this regard are high levels of noise, too much light at night and air pollution. As well as these issues having an effect on wellbeing and quality of life, Artus says they can sometimes affect people’s long-term health outcomes. 

To use Right to Know, people enter their postcode into a box and receive environmental and health information on their area. The intention is to offer further information about other environmental matters like planning issues and proximity to green space, and Right to Know will be building its presence nationally in the next six months. 

Artus, a Clerkenwell resident for much of his life, believes that we remain in the dark about environmental health. “We developed the tool because people’s access to environmental data is very weak,” he says. “Open data from the Government is almost impossible to navigate and local authorities are little better. It feels sometimes like they’re being intentionally obscure – and that’s not good for democracy.” 

The Localism Act of 2010 aimed to empower citizens but didn’t go far enough, he adds. “A lot of local authorities at the moment are in the process of redesigning or updating their local plans,” says Artus. “So when it comes to community engagement with the authorities, it is best directed by planning groups rather than individuals.” That’s because, in the face of an environmental problem, it is very difficult to find who to talk to, and it’s a major challenge because, says Artus, “policy protects commerce over people.” 

There are tools that people can use, such as decibel reading apps that you can log to show the local authority, but as Artus says, the best vehicle for raising concerns is still to become part of a neighbourhood group – a process that takes time from busy lives. 

In Clerkenwell, there are high levels of exposure to air, noise and light pollution, with lorries still driving through residential neighbourhoods and heat stress in summer. Construction sites, says Artus, expose residents to high levels of stress. But conversations about wellness tend to favour accessibility to organic foods, gyms and accessibility to outdoor spaces. “It’s very important to how we look at these metrics to define quality of place,” says Artus. 

“People should not be allowing places where we live, our habitats, to be making us sick, and that goes right down to building materials. For example, commercial buildings with glass fronts reflect sound. Yet local authority planning guidance does not talk about things like that – it’s always more about what colour they are.” 

Artus also says that numbers of deliveries are increasing in central areas, with attendant problems of parking and storage. “When we look at the number of vehicles that are driving around, such as lorries from the Royal Mail, we could ask if there are more ancillary storage spaces as well as opportunities to use smaller and greener vehicles.” 

Centric Lab is now building an app about clean air, looking at how high levels of risk disproportionately affect social housing in areas like Clerkenwell, with a view to further pursuing the citizen’s right to know about their environment. 

More information and to try the app, go to right-to-know.org