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PurpleAir, AirNow, IQAir, essential in western U.S.

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The Purple Air air-quality map on Friday Sept. 11, 2020, shows most of the west coast with hazardous levels of pollution from wildfire smoke.

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As record-breaking fires wreak havoc on the Western United States, they’re also releasing massive amounts of smoke and ash into the atmosphere, adding to the region’s health woes.

To find out where and when it’s safe to go outside again, residents are flocking to air quality apps and web sites like AirNow, PurpleAir and IQAir. They’re also snapping up air quality sensors made by these and other groups to monitor pollution levels on their own properties, along with air purifiers to keep their homes and offices breathable.

On September 9, 2020, as skies above Oakland and San Francisco turned an eerie dark orange from the smoke, about 600,000 people visited the PurpleAir air quality map in a single day, according to Google Analytics data the company shared with CNBC. The vast majority of those visitors were from California. Site visits from users in Oregon and Washington were picking up on the 9th and 10th, as well, as Oregon prepared to evacuate some 500,000 people from harm’s way.

PurpleAir CEO Adrian Dybwad told CNBC, “We feel glad to be able to help people measure and understand where the smoke is, how far it is traveling and where they might go to get clean air. But it is a very strange feeling when your business does well in the middle of such tragedies.”

PurpleAir sold 1,000 sensors in recent weeks

Founded in 2015, PurpleAir creates its map with data that streams in from the sensors that the company makes at its Draper, Utah, headquarters, which cost between $199 to $279 apiece.

The company employs just 12 full-time employees but is looking to double that this season, and has about 9,000 of its sensors installed around the world up currently, up from about 6,000 at this time last year, Dybwad said. About 1,000 sensors were sold in the past few weeks, as lightning storms sparked an early fire season in California. 

The map is free and has no ads, and offers a simple color-coded key that shows just how bad the air is outside. A green dot means it’s mostly clean. Orange means that sensitive groups will likely be affected after 24 hours, while red means everyone may be affected. The worst color, a dark purple-maroon, warns “Health warnings of emergency conditions if they are exposed for more than 24 hours. The entire population is more likely to be affected.” On the worst days of the 2020 fire season, like Sept. 11, most of the west coast is covered in purple-maroon dots.

Vehicles are seen along Interstate 80 as flames from the LNU Lighting Complex Fire are seen on both sides on the outskirts of Vacaville, California, U.S. August 19, 2020.

Stephen Lam | Reuters

Readings on the PurpleAir map can appear higher than the measurements on the AirNow site managed by federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NASA.

Dybwad explained why: “Our sensors, essentially, shine a laser beam and when particles float through or are sucked through that beam of light, they count and assess the reflections. The more, and brighter the reflections generally, the more particles. The density that the sensor assumes can be slightly off depending what it is measuring, like wood smoke versus gravel dust, for example.”

Wood smoke particles generally have a density of 1.5 grams per cubic centimeter, and gravel dust particles are typically 2.8 grams per cubic centimeter in density, he noted. 

For now, PurpleAir aims to show people where the intensity of air pollution is generally worsening or improving every few minutes, and whether the air is risky or healthy.

“We don’t need to be splitting hairs all the time — whether it is purple or very purple, we know the intensity of the pollution is bad,” said Dybwad. “Other companies try to hide their data, so you have to pay to log in to see it. Our philosophy is openness.”

Other air quality companies are working on more precise measurements of particulates we breathe.

Aclima, a startup funded by the Schmidt Family Foundation, Emerson Collective and other environment-minded investors, is working on sensors that can measure particles and greenhouse gases, like ozone, to generate hyperlocal air quality data that is purchased and used by regulators and scientists, primarily.  

The startup’s CEO and founder, Davida Herzl, said her systems work with a mix of technologies, including laser-based and electrochemical sensors and machine learning software, all combined into a kind of lab in a box. The systems are portable enough to go in the back of a passenger vehicle, which can rove around any town that needs to be monitored closely in the face of a new environmental threat. They can even generate readings of how air quality varies from one end of a city block to another.

The start-up is selling its data and systems to regulatory agencies like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in California. They use Aclima data for emission reduction planning, and enforcement against polluters. Herzl said the company is monitoring air quality in an area that covers about 10 million residents, mostly in California with some in New York. She expects to double that coverage in the next six months.

Swiss air quality company IQAir, which also operates the AirVisual app, sees spikes in website visits and sales of air filtration systems whenever there’s a significant environmental event like the fires now raging in the Western states, or the Australian wildfires in 2019, which burned 72,000 square miles of land, killed 34 people, and drove billions of animals out of their habitat.

For example, IQAir’s CEO for North America, Glory Dolphin Hammes, told CNBC the company gained over 1 million new visitors to its air quality maps from August 17 to September 10 as fires broke out across the state of California, burning a record amount of acreage. Over that same period, new visitors to air quality maps for cities in Oregon and Washington on IQAir.com increased by more than 18,000% and 38,000% respectively. 

The company has more than 80,000 sensors measuring air quality around the world, with a majority in North America today, and some positioned at U.S. embassies around the world. 

Glory Dolphin Hammes (CEO) IQAir North America, Inc.

IQ Air Inc.

While it’s obvious that people should avoid going outside when the sky turns dark and orange with smoke, air quality problems and associated health risks remain even when skies appear normal, Hammes noted.

“We take air quality for granted all too often. You’ll see a blue sky and assume you can breathe clean air as well. Tragic events like wildfires can bring a discussion about air quality to the forefront. But we want to make air quality visible and a topic of discussion all year round,” she said.

Because the company sells air purification systems, not just sensors, some of its focus has shifted in 2020 to helping measure air quality and improve ventilation in more schools, hospitals and industrial settings. 

The rise of free, online air quality maps marks a massive shift in consumer awareness of air pollution, according to environmental journalist Amy Westervelt, creator of the climate change podcast Drilled. Westervelt says coal, manufacturing and other industries lobbied hard for government to treat air emissions data like a trade secret. But given sophisticated enough sensors, and data coming from consumers and open-source groups, industry won’t be able to hide its impact on the air we breathe forever. 

“I think this ‘airpocalypse’ could put an end to environmental disinformation,” said Westervelt. “You can’t message your way out of it when the sky is on fire and nobody can leave the house.”

WATCH: West Coast wildfires continue with at least 15 people dead

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TikTok owner ByteDance launches mobile payments in China

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A symbol of TikTok (Douyin) is pictured at The Place shopping mall at dusk on August 22, 2020 in Beijing, China.

VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — ByteDance has launched a new payment service within Douyin, the Chinese version of short-video sharing app TikTok.

Douyin users can choose Douyin Pay to make purchases within the short-video app. Creators usually sell items or merchandise related to their content.

“The set-up of Douyin Pay … is to supplement the existing major payment options, and to ultimately enhance user experience on Douyin,” ByteDance said in a statement. ByteDance owns both Douyin and TikTok.

Indeed, Douyin already offers payment options from Alibaba affiliate Ant Group’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay, the two dominant mobile payment apps in China.

Together, Alipay and WeChat Pay account for more than 90% of the mobile payments market in China, according to iResearch.

Both payment services are available within apps but also at physical stores where customers can scan barcodes to purchase items. This is different to Douyin Pay which will just be available within the Douyin app.

Douyin’s payment system is operated by Wuhan Hezhong Yibao Technology, a company ByteDance purchased around two years ago. Users will need a Chinese bank account to use Douyin Pay.

The latest push into both e-commerce and financial technology, or fintech, highlights ByteDance’s desire to expand beyond social networking. This has included forays into mobile gaming, a search engine and music streaming.


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Netflix and Disney trading places: Upstart vs old guard

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The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and Disney’s Mickey Mouse

Netflix; CNBC

Disney and Netflix pride themselves on storytelling. Now they’ve switched places when it comes to the tales they’re telling Wall Street.

Netflix said on Tuesday that it would consider buying back shares for the first time since 2011. After nearly a decade of borrowing $15 billion to fund original content, Netflix said Tuesday it planned to be cash flow positive after 2021 and would no longer need outside financing for its operations.

Disney, meanwhile, temporarily halted its dividend last year and has heard calls from activist investor Dan Loeb to permanently end its annual $3 billion payment to shareholders. Loeb wanted Disney to funnel that money into original content, using Netflix’s startling run-up from $11 billion company to $220 billion media giant as a model.

While Disney hasn’t ended its dividend yet, the company is focusing its operations around streaming. Disney plans to roll out dozens of Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar movies and series in the coming years for its flagship streaming service, Disney+. The service has gained more than 86 million subscribers in a year, way ahead of Disney’s original expectations, and the company now expects between 230 million and 260 million subscribers by 2024.

“It’s super impressive what Disney has done,” Netflix co-CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings said during Netflix’s earnings conference call. “It’s incredible execution for an incumbent to pivot to take on the insurgent. It shows members are willing and interested to pay for more content because they’re hungry for great stories. And Disney does have great stories.”

But while Hastings still refers to Disney as the incumbent, investors see a different picture. There’s a reason why Disney shares gained more than 2% after hours on Netflix’s news, which sent Netflix shares up more than 12%. Investors don’t see the battle as Disney versus Netflix. They see that Disney wants to be like Netflix, and there’s room for both.

Netflix was founded in 1997. Disney has been around for nearly 100 years.

But in the streaming video world, Netflix is the incumbent and Disney the upstart.

The student has become the teacher.

WATCH: Netflix: We’ll be cash-flow neutral this year, positive every year after


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YouTube extends Trump suspension for another week

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Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube.

Michael Newberg | CNBC

YouTube is extending Donald Trump’s channel suspension for a week longer than its previous temporary suspension.

The Google-owned company confirmed to CNBC the extension Tuesday, citing a potential for ongoing violence. Donald Trump’s YouTube account has 2.79 million subscribers and, prior to the suspension, typically posted several videos a day from him and from right-wing media stations.

The company is also going to continue banning comments from showing on videos posted within his channel. The temporary suspension means Trump’s account and existing videos will remain accessible but he won’t be able to upload new content for a minimum of seven more days.

Last week, Google suspended President Trump’s YouTube account and formally warned the White House about its use of the world’s largest video platform after the deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol by some Trump supporters in early January. The company normally has a three-strike rule and the first strike results in a temporary account suspension.

The extension comes ahead of Inauguration Day, where the U.S. will transition power to the next president, Joe Biden. 

The company has historically taken a more hands-off approach to moderating content on its platform, which faced renewed criticism following the 2020 election. By the time YouTube gave Trump its first strike, Twitter and Facebook had already banned Trump indefinitely, citing incitement to violence.


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