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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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Ant Group final approvals for its massive Hong Kong, Shanghai IPO

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The Ant Group Co. logo and the Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. logo are displayed behind a reception desk at the company’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — Ant Group has cleared the final regulatory hurdle for its massive initial public offering (IPO) with the pricing of its shares slated to be released within the next week.

On Wednesday, the China Securities Regulatory Commission gave the green light for Ant Group’s dual Shanghai and Hong Kong listing to go ahead. That came after the Hong Kong stock exchange also gave its approval for the offshore portion of the listing.

The Chinese financial technology giant, which is 33% owned by Alibaba and controlled by founder Jack Ma, also updated its IPO prospectus with information on the share structure.

It will split its stock issuance equally across Shanghai and Hong Kong, issuing 1.67 billion shares in each location. That amounts to 11% of its total outstanding shares post-IPO. The number of shares could increase if the so-called overallotment option is exercised, depending on demand.

Ant Group will now proceed with a roadshow to market the IPO to investors and will price the shares on Oct. 27.

Strategic investors have agreed to subscribe to 80% of the company’s Shanghai-issued A shares. Alibaba, via it subsidiary Zhejiang Tmall Technology, has agreed to buy 730 million A shares. This will allow Alibaba to maintain its roughly 33% stake in Ant Group.

Ant Group also released some updated financial figures for the first nine months of 2020. It says monthly active users of its Alipay mobile payments app has increased from 711 million in June to 731 million in September.

Revenue was 118.19 billion yuan ($17.73 billion), a more than 42% year-on-year rise.

Ant Group’s listing could be one of the biggest of all time. Reuters has previously reported the listing could raise up to $35 billion. One analyst previously told CNBC that Ant’s valuation could exceed $200 billion.


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Facebook Dating lands in Europe as singles look for love in lockdown

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LONDON — Facebook announced Thursday that it has expanded its dating service to Europe, a little over a year after it launched in the U.S.

The platform, known simply as “Facebook Dating,” is designed to help Facebook users find partners through things they have in common such as interests, events and groups. Those wanting to opt-in to the service, which has a dedicated space in the Facebook app, must set up a Facebook Dating profile.

Once registered, Facebook users can share personal “Stories” on their dating profile, as well as Stories from their main Facebook or Instagram account.”(assume end quote here?)

There’s also a “Secret Crush” feature that enables users to select up nine Facebook friends or Instagram followers that they’re interested in. If one of those people also selects you as their crush then a match is generated. Here is a bit more on how it all works.

Julia Portelly, a 26-year-old PR consultant, told CNBC that she’ll definitely have a “poke around” the new dating service despite not using Facebook much these days. “I’m wondering if they [Facebook] will bring something completely new to the game, or just pinch features and repurpose them?” she said.

PR consultant Julia Portelly says she plans to “poke around” on Facebook Dating.

Julia Portelly

Another dating app user said: “I don’t use Facebook much anymore and I don’t know if I trust their ability to check people’s identities, so probably not for me.”

Unlike other dating services such as Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble, the Facebook Dating feature is completely free to use, with no premium offering.

A single male teacher in his early 30s told CNBC: “So many services these days taunt you with potential matches but then hide them behind paywalls. Set love free I say — I’m ready for Facebook to help set this straight.”

Dating has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdowns and social distancing measures making in-person dates difficult in countries around the world. Politicians have faced tricky questions on the matter, with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week saying “sex indoors” is banned for couples living in separate households in certain parts of the country.

Facebook said it is in the process of rolling out a feature that will allow singles who have matched on Facebook Dating to have video chats.

First announced at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in May 2018, the dating feature launched in the U.S. in September 2019, immediately sending shares in Match, which owns dating app Tinder, down 4.5%. The service is now available in 52 countries worldwide including 32 in Europe.

Facebook claims that the platform has generated 1.5 billion matches across 20 countries since it launched. The company did not immediately respond when CNBC asked how many of its users have opted-in to Facebook Dating.

Shaz Younas, chief executive and founder of Muslim dating app muzmatch, said Facebook Dating has been a bit of a “non-event” so far.

“Match group stock dipped when it was announced but quickly recovered,” said Younas, a former investment banker with Morgan Stanley. “Facebook branding isn’t great, but it cannot be underestimated.”

“Facebook’s ability to match . . . individuals based on their actual behavior is unparalleled. That is a real edge for them that no one can match. Even if 1% of their userbase uses it, that is still a wildly successful product purely based on their size. That said, as has been shown in the dating world, dating app members are often on multiple platforms, so anything to normalise people using dating app products only helps the sector too.”


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Airbnb teaming up with former Apple design boss Jony Ive

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SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 03: Apple chief design officer Jony Ive (L) uses an iPad.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Former Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive will consult with Airbnb on hiring and future products, the company announced on Wednesday.

Ive is best known for being Apple’s longtime head of industrial design and an icon in Silicon Valley. He led teams that designed the iPod, iPhone, and Apple Watch before leaving the company last summer to start an independent design firm named LoveFrom, which counts Apple as a client.

Ive and LoveFrom will help Airbnb over a period of multiple years to design new products and services, as well as hire designers for an internal team, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in a blog post.

“Jony and I have been good friends for many years, and he has been gracious enough to provide me with guidance and advice,” Chesky wrote. “We share the same belief in the value and importance of creativity and design.”

Chesky is notable among Silicon Valley founders for going to Rhode Island School of Design, where he majored in industrial design. Previously, Ive wrote an entry for Time magazine lauding Chesky and praising his background as a designer.

Airbnb struggled in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as lockdowns across the world curtailed travel plans, and the company laid off 25% of its staff in May. However, the company has since seen a resurgence in demand as city residents with the option to work remotely started booking stays in rural locations.

Airbnb said in August that it confidentially filed for an IPO. Reuters reported earlier this month that Airbnb is hoping to raise $3 billion in its IPO, which is expected to be one of the biggest stock market listings in 2020.


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