Google climate map San Mateo County

San Mateo County became the first to partner with Google on its Environmental Insight Explorer tool, which calculates and displays city and countywide data on emissions and solar potential using Google imagery and location data.

Google estimates San Mateo County’s overall building emissions to be 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, a unit used to measure greenhouse gases relative to carbon dioxide. The county’s transportation emissions are estimated at 3.88 million tons, and rooftop solar potential at 1.92 million tons carbon dioxide equivalent. The data and its methodology are available online for free.

Ulysses Vinson, director of the county’s innovation initiative SMC Labs that spearheaded the coordination with Google, said the project was made possible because of the lab’s history of enthusiasm and ability to use data to inform and gather community members and policymakers. He specifically pointed to the lab’s prior work to collect real-time air quality data as fire season threatened residents’ health.

“Google loved what we were doing at the county level,” Vinson said. “We had already put so much in motion.”

Vinson said that Google’s tool is powerful because it takes existing data that already exists on other Google platforms, aggregates it and presents it in a digestible and quantifiable way.

“What it gives us is a picture of how the way people are moving — in their cars and trucks and on Caltrain — how does that impact the county,” Vinson said. “This is data they already had, but now they’re making it available.”

Avana Andrade, a sustainability specialist at the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability, said the data from the tool could advance the county’s climate action goals. 

“It’s helpful for us because we often struggle to get big data sets to make informed decisions about climate action planning,” Andrade said. “It’s really useful for staff like me who are putting together policy documents and advising on programs at the county.”

Andrade pointed to two policy initiatives — the county’s active transportation plan

for unincorporated areas and its climate action plan to reduce emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 — as areas where Google’s tool could make a difference.

But Andrade warned that data is just one piece of the recipe when it comes to fighting climate change. 

“More data doesn’t inevitably lead towards action,” Andrade said. “I think this is an extremely valuable tool. I also think that we should not lose sight of the political will and the funding for development that are still necessary and lagging to make any progress on climate change.”

Andrade also said it is important to keep in mind that the data Google captures is just one part of a much larger picture.

“If there’s a truck driving down (Highway) 101 with all of the TVs and printers in it, we capture those vehicle emissions,” Andrade said. “But when we’re talking about the contents of that truck, we don’t.”

In the long term, Andrade hopes the tool will show changes in emissions over time and, if scaled to neighboring regions, to aid coordinated responses to climate problems. 

“This tool will help us visualize regional patterns and help us develop more clear policies that have the potential to have a regional impact,” Andrade said. “Regional collaboration is already happening, and this could help facilitate that.” 

Vinson agreed, and said the Google tool aligns with SMC Labs’ mission: to look at problem solving at the county level to make government services more efficient and engaging.

“We know that these problems that affect us in our region, whether it’s housing, it’s traffic, it’s environmental; it impacts us all,” Vinson said. “They don’t stop at the individual borders of each city.” 

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