Will Big, Open Data Help Us Feel the Air?

Jan 11, 2016 · 4 min read

This post is written by and contains the opinions of Christa Hasenkopf, co-founder of OpenAQ.


Update 18 Jan 2016: We’re holding an informal meet up on OpenAQ 10 Feb evening in Washington, DC. Come join us! More info here + RSVP here.


When my husband Joe and I lived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for a couple of years, we found it hard to convey to family, friends and colleagues back home just how polluted the air in the city is in winter time, and, more precisely, how it makes one feel. As an atmospheric scientist, my whole purpose in being there was to study the city’s giant air pollution issues, so you would have thought I’d be well-equipped to the task. But I wasn’t.

Well, I did have access to data to make compelling visuals like the one below, comparing air quality conditions during the infamous 2013 several-day Beijing ‘airpocalypse’ with typical month-long air quality conditions at various locations in winter-time Ulaanbaatar:

A comparison of UB air quality to that of Beijing during its January 2013 air quality crisis. The Beijing crisis prompted the government to close factories and warn Beijing residents to stay indoors. This graph shows that people in some areas of Ulaanbaatar experience PM2.5 levels for an entire month (and really, for many, a whole winter) that are comparable (or far exceed!) to those experienced during the days-long Beijing air quality crisis.

And I also had friends who took photos illustrating the severity of the pollution:

Photos taken from 2011–2013 during winter months in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. These photos and others can be accessed at ubairpollution.org.

But both static data and photos fell short of accurately conveying what it is like for citizens to live in highly polluted places and how it can affect their day-to-day lives.

A mock-up of Joe standing in our theoretical air pollution booth to experience air quality from, say, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in the winter time. No Joes were hurt in the making of this post.

Joe and I floated around various silly ideas on how theoretically we could give someone in a far less polluted place the same visceral experience of walking down the sidewalk in Ulaanbaatar. I think Joe was originally the one who came up with the booth idea: imagine building a booth back home in the U.S., in which someone could walk in and experience severely polluted air for a few minutes. They’d feel the sting on their throat and eyes. They’d breathe as shallowly as possible to avoid the deep burn in their lungs and wonder how you could walk around in such conditions for any length of time. They wouldn’t want their young children to try it for even a few minutes.

Stepping back a second, though, what’s the point of getting someone to experience severely polluted air, anyway? Is it just to make someone feel bad? Gain a sympathetic mind for air quality work? Make someone appreciate the good air quality they normally breathe?

The point is so much more than any of those reasons. It is hard to come up with a more fundamental and frequent act of life than breathing air. Therefore, you had better believe that breathing in severely polluted air — the kind that you immediately feel on your throat and your eyes, the kind you can taste — is going to influence your perspective, from your world-view down to how you spend your Friday nights. Scaling up individual experiences to millions upon millions of people in the world exposed to severe pollution, nations’ experiences with air pollution have an international level impact on everything from climate change to energy issues to public health.

Look at the recent difference between Indians and Americans when it comes to Googling ‘air pollution’ vs. ‘climate change.’ The underlying cause of air pollution and climate change is the same: combustion of carbon-based fuels. But whether air pollution or climate change better captures a nation’s attention depends on the quality of air its citizens breathe.

This graphic originally appeared in this post: https://medium.com/@openaq/bridging-the-global-air-quality-access-gap-c2afc72909a3#.rj0ht9mzk

This gap in perspectives — and also the gap in understanding of the hidden ways in which air quality in severely polluted places affects life — could potentially be bridged with big, open real-time data. For example, with the right combination of air quality and other real-time data, you can imagine teasing out the air pollution signal in every day life as it happens, like how air quality affects a city’s activity patterns in transportation, hospital admissions, commercial sectors, school attendance, tourism, etc. These are just some of the potential ways that air pollution can insidiously affect our every day lives and well-being; Big, open data can help us feel these impacts and apply additional pressure points on society to address them.

So what about our silly air pollution booth idea? We never made it. We’d considered it again more recently because we could now build something that used real-time air quality data piped in from OpenAQ, an open data, open-source air quality platform we’ve been working on. I checked in with a friend of mine who is a lawyer about the idea, and her first response was to warn us that if we didn’t take precautions, we’d get ourselves sued by letting people put themselves in the booth. Good point, heh. Though it is a startling to me that letting others breathe in severely polluted air for a few minutes — air that is breathed by millions of people all day, every day around the world — could get you sued here in the U.S.

Where and how we feel our air matters.

If you’d like to learn more about OpenAQ, an open air quality data and open-source project, checkout openaq.org.


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We're making an open, real-time air quality data hub because we think it'll let people do amazing things. Want to help out? Find us at openaq.org.

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