Building an Open Data Ecosystem for Air Quality Monitoring

Air pollution is one of most acute health problems of our times. Although invisible, small particles — 2.5 microns in diameter — are today understood to be the fourth highest risk factor for death globally.  A deadly cause of respiratory disease all over the world, it is estimated to cause 2.9 million deaths per year, 64% of those in Asia, where rapid development has led to increased exposure to particulate matter air pollution. But getting accurate local information about air quality in many places is difficult if not impossible, and even where it is provided by governments or researchers, the data tends to be ambient rather than location specific.

With these facts in mind, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) has worked over the past three years to engage with researchers and social tech leaders to experiment with the use of low-cost sensors to identify pollution hotspots in places like Ulan Bataar (Mongolia), Jakarta (Indonesia) and São Paulo (Brazil). In partnership with lead engineer Matthew Schroyer, EJN developed the DustDuino, a particulate matter sensor that uses an adapted Arduino board to send air quality data to the Internet.

EJN and Tech leaders pilot an air quality sensor network in Brazil

Watch a video about the pilot program:

DUSTIDUINO-ING from belabaderna on Vimeo.

In April 2014, with the support of Feedback Labs, EJN joined the “Make Sense” consortium to test a hypothesis that low-cost sensors could be used to improve responsiveness to air pollution. A diverse set of partners–including Frontline SMS, SimLab, the GroundTruth Initiative and Development Seed — were mobilized to contribute to the creation of a pilot sensor network.

In the following 18 months, EJN and its partners designed and manufactured a prototype of the DustDuino, developed to display readings from the devices, and wrote a manual for the use of the sensor.  By deploying the DustDuino in Sao Paulo, the team has been able to test the quality of the data produced and support the distribution of data via SMS messages and interactive web maps.

“There was tremendous interest in Sao Paulo among journalists, developers, NGOs, municipal officials and other stakeholders,” said EJN Manager Gustavo Faleiros. “So we worked with them to distribute 12 sensors around the city and connect them in real time to our interactive map.”

Lessons learned during the project are now documented in a comprehensive report authored by Erica Hagen of the GroundTruth Intiative. This learning document was created following   interviews with each of the consortium partners and describes in detail our strategies to deal with issues facing “Internet of Things” development projects such as user engagement, connectivity choices, manufacturing processes, and the current challenges we face in collecting meaningful data.

Besides the complexity of obtaining reliable data, one of the key goals in creating and deploying the sensors was to generate a community of users that can make the network effective. The local Make Sense team — represented in São Paulo by the group of journalists and developers called Código Urbano (“Urban Code”) — organized gatherings and workshops to distribute sensors and train people in how to use them. They also made a brief video about the project.

Despite the high level of interest by the public, the challenges of dealing with such new technologies could not be overcome during the pilot. EJN’s ultimate goal is to be able to provide cheap, easy-to-use (“plug and play”) sensors to journalists and other communicators to enable them to report accurately on air quality issues. But we are not there yet. Using the DustDuinos still requires a certain level of programing skills to make them work.

“The project has made some progress toward creating a reliable DustDuino air quality sensor prototype; ironing out mass-production, software and hardware issues; and building FrontlineSMS integration, API, and a back-end user integration and front-end data display on Open Dust Map,” Hagen concludes in the report. “The project has also made headway toward getting reliable and accurate structured data from the sensors, and produced extensive documentation that will allow for further experimentation. In the end, however, the consortium was not able to successfully test the potential of sensor technology for monitoring by people and communities most affected by environmental degradation.”

Read the full report.

This report marks an important milestone for EJN’s sensor journalism activities, whose work in this field has also been supported by a generous donation from Nancy and Greg Serrurier.

“Supporting an open source approach for the creation and sharing of air quality information is a critical step toward addressing this global burden,” says EJN’s Program Officer Willie Shubert. “It’s going to take collective action to find remedies to the air pollution problem and we hope that the publishing of this report can help inform initiatives that share this goal.”

In combination with several other related projects — such as OpenAQ, a site monitoring official government air quality data – EJN will continue to develop future iterations of the DustDuino focused on improving access to meaningful air quality data.

“We remain excited at the prospect of this technology to democratize environmental information,” says James Fahn, EJN’s Executive Director. “We believe that the proliferation of Internet-connected sensors at the core of the Internet of Things will help form the future of environmental monitoring.”