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OpenAQ - Using open data to fight for better air quality across the globe

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 26, 2020
OpenAQ collates data from air quality sensors around the world, making it accessible on a single platform for researchers and government.

Image of a city with bad air pollution
(Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay )

It can often be difficult to find tangible examples of where making data openly available is affecting real-world change. OpenAQ is doing exactly that via an open data platform that collates real-time air quality data, through the use of sensors, from across the world. 

Sruti Modekurty, platform lead at OpenAQ, was speaking at this week’s TICTeC 2020 conference (online, via Zoom) about how making access to air quality data openly available can have a real impact on influencing policy and ultimately improve the health of citizens. 

But why? What you might not know is that air pollution causes one out of every eight deaths each year on the planet. It is one of the biggest public health and human rights issues of our time, explained Modekurty. According to the World Health Organisation, over 90% of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air. 

What does that look like? It would take a particle that is just 2.5 microns (or PM 2.5) in diameter to penetrate our lungs and cause cardiovascular and respiratory ailments. To give you an idea of scale and size, you could fit approximately 25,000 microns (particles or droplets) in an inch. In other words, it’s tiny. 

However, the availability of data and using technology to impact change in action in improving air quality was first seen at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Modekurty said. She explained:

Everyone knew Beijing was polluted, but we didn’t know how much. That year the US embassy in Beijing installed a rooftop air quality monitor that started tweeting out PM 2.5 data every hour. It was one of the first times that realtime PM 2.5 data was available to scientists, allowing them to study air pollution trends and make predictions. Engineers started scraping the data from Twitter and developing third party apps that informed citizens when they should stay inside, when it was okay to go outside, etc. 

It took some time but the overwhelming international response to this data being tweeted out forced China to invest billions of dollars and clean up their air. 

The lesson here is that communities need basic access to data to affect policy change. And it was this story that inspired the creation of OpenAQ.

You can see the image below of Beijing comparing 2008 to now, to give you an idea of the impact that making this data available had. 

Before and after image of Beijing air pollution 2008 to now
(Image sourced via OpenAQ)

An air quality platform

Modekurty said that following Beijing, the idea behind OpenAQ started with a simple question - what if all of the world’s air quality data were open and accessible? This spawned OpenAQ, which is a non-profit dedicated to fighting air pollution with open data and community. 

She explained: 

The challenges are a lack of access to air quality data, especially in some of the most polluted places. Even in the places that air quality data does exist, it’s often in an inconsistent or temporary air quality format. Making it difficult for anybody who wants to look at global air quality to get a good picture of what’s happening. And both of these combined together, prevent civil society from taking adequate action to improve air quality in their local communities.

OpenAQ takes all of those disparate sources, standardises them and makes the data openly accessible. OpenAQ is essentially a data infrastructure that can be used by journalists, researchers, and people in government, so that they can focus on what they’re good at - which is not spending hours and hours transcribing PDFs into spreadsheets. Modekurty said: 

Our strategy is to combine this very tangible platform and data with a diverse global community to create a healthier, more efficient and connected data sharing ecosystem. And overall make everybody better positioned to fight air inequality across the globe.

OpenAQ contains real-time and historical government grade data from all over the world. It has over 500 million air quality measurements from 133 data sources, in 87 countries. The platform is entirely open source, it is written in Node.JS, running on AWS and a fetch process runs every 10 minutes to grab the data. 

There are several different ways that you can access the data, but the most popular and easiest way is through the OpenAQ API, which has 200 million data requests per year. In this month alone (March 2020), the API has already had 30 million requests and has been accessed in 162 countries. 

The data and the platform has allowed the OpenAQ to collaborate and build their own useful products - such as Smokey, the air quality chatbot, which takes in raw concentrations available on the platform and translates it into easy-to-understand metrics for people that they know when it is healthy and unhealthy to go outside and exercise, for example. 

Development and action

Modekurty said that OpenAQ cultivates and engages its community through in-person and online workshops. She provided some examples of how the platform and the data has been used to drive action and improve air quality for people. Modekurty said: 

In terms of research, a NASA research team used the real-time data available on the platform to conduct a research study and develop air quality forecasting models. They were able to use the real-time data available on the platform to double check their models and make sure they are working correctly. In addition, they were able to make data comparisons between different countries and also identify data gaps in their key areas. 

The media has been able to use it, for example the Bloomberg Green data Dash. That overlays OpenAQ data with population data and that helps inform the public, which makes it easier to visualise the magnitude and severity of the problem. 

It also helps identify gaps in data, especially in countries with large populations, ultimately making it easier to push for environmental policy change. 

One of my favourite examples is we held a workshop in Ghana last year. It sparked civil society to take action and bring air quality data to the community. They demanded increased coverage and frequency of the air quality monitors in Ghana. They had a publication come out, Columbia University heard about it, reached out and donated air quality monitors. And it has been worked out that they have saved 17,000 lives each year from air pollution.

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