TL;DR — Air quality data is the foundation of behavioral and policy changes to improve air quality, but in order for this data to be useful, it must be communicated in an accurate, effective, and actionable way. Following best practices for sharing and communicating this data helps to ensure that the public and other stakeholders are receiving important information about air quality — empowering them to decrease exposure and protect public and environmental health. One common way to communicate air quality data is with air quality indices, which many countries around the world employ, although their use differs widely. Other useful avenues of highlighting the broader impacts of air pollution —  such as pairing air quality communications with information about the climate change co-benefits that come with decreasing air pollution —  are also an important part of building air quality awareness.

Leveraging air quality data to improve our air

Low-cost air quality sensors produce data that can be useful for a variety of applications, including driving decision-making about air quality exposure, protecting public health, increasing public awareness of air quality issues, and supporting research and policy initiatives. 

While the increasing availability and quality of low-cost air sensor technology create the potential for access to a growing volume of high-resolution air quality data, this data must be interpreted accurately, communicated effectively, and shared in a comprehensible manner to create the most impact.

It is especially important that air quality measurements are translated into easily understandable and actionable information when this data is being communicated to non-technical audiences to ensure that the data are interpreted and acted on appropriately. Understanding the practical implications of air quality measurements is important in protecting the public from air pollution exposure and encouraging behavior change and citizen involvement in protecting the air.

For air quality communication to be effective, it needs to ensure that it raises awareness, changes attitudes and fosters low polluting behavior. This will not only improve air quality but will ensure that vulnerable groups are protected.”
– Clean Air Asia in Guidance Framework for Better Air Quality in Asian Cities report

Best practices for communicating air quality data effectively

At the most basic level, the first step to effectively communicating air quality data from a sensor network is to get clear on your desired outcomes. Some questions to consider include: 

  • Why are we sharing this data? What actions would we like the people who see it to take? Are there changes we would like them to make to reduce exposure or prevent additional air pollution? Determining what impact you would like the data to have will help you establish goals for your air quality communications. 
  • Who is the audience for this data? Defining the key audience or audiences for your data will help you find the most effective format for sharing the data. Consider questions such as: How technical are they? Do they already have a baseline understanding of air quality science? If not, it may be necessary to provide an AQI or another means of “translating” air quality measurements into actionable information. 
  • What do we want people to understand after viewing the data? Considering the “key messages” that the data should convey can help you determine the best way to frame and translate air quality measurements into useful, actionable information for your audience. 
  • How can we most effectively reach our key audiences? Consider where your audience is typically getting their information, and what tools you might use to reach them. This will help you create a tactical “air quality communication plan”. For some highly-technical audiences, simply providing an API key with access to raw measurements may be sufficient. But if your goal is to reach a wide, non-technical audience, you will likely have to provide additional resources such as a public-facing web interface, or be more proactive in your communication of air quality measurements using tools such as social media or email and SMS notifications. 

To reach the widest audience possible, it is best practice to make air quality data available across a range of communication channels, such as via API, public-faced dashboards, or other web-based user interfaces. 

Publishing regular reports that put air quality into context is crucial, especially when communicating data with less technical audiences. Brightline Defense’s “Little Room to Breathe” report, for example, examines the impact of air pollution in San Francisco on Single Room Occupancy (SRO) communities that are disproportionately affected given limited access to indoor air filtration or personal protective equipment, preexisting health conditions, and crowded living conditions.  

Like with any data source, it is important to ensure that your air quality data is accurate and high-quality before using it to draw conclusions. The EPA Air Sensor Toolbox can help to understand low-cost sensor performance by providing more information on the performance and operation of air sensor monitoring technologies. Our “Guide to Accurate Particulate Matter Measurements with Air Sensors” discusses how to obtain accurate PM measurements according to EPA, EU, and other performance standards.

Communicating air quality data to non-technical audiences

It is important to remember that most people accessing the data will not have a technical background, so depending on the audience, communicating scientific values such as “µg/m3” may not be helpful unless put into context. 

One example of a creative way to help people understand the impact of a given level of air pollution on their health is the AQI to Cigarettes Calculator.

While comparing air pollution to activities with more well-known health impacts can be a great way to pique their interest, the most common way of “translating” air pollution measurements into easily comprehended, actionable information for the public is with air quality indices (AQIs). These scales — which different substantially from country to country — provide a means of “ranking” air pollution concentrations based on their health impacts and/or behavioral implications. 

The U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) for example consists of six levels, with air quality ratings ranging from “good” to “hazardous”. The AQI combines multiple variables into a single value that can be more easily communicated to the public. The index aggregates information about five pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act — ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide — using the highest level pollutant of the particular day.

The United States Air Quality Index (AQI) uses a six-level scale to translate air pollution concentrations into their associated health impact, helping to keep the public informed about the quality of their air. (Image source: AirNow)

To go a step further, if you have a particular audience in mind for your air quality data, you can translate the AQI into specific actions that the audience should take given the AQI range. An example of actionable recommendations that might be made for schools monitoring air quality is included below.

One group using AQI to drive pollution-reduction decision-making is the city of Denver’s Love My Air program. The program partners with schools to measure and communicate air quality data on campus, displaying real-time PM2.5 levels at a location within the school. 

This real-time data guides decision-making regarding behavior appropriate for that day’s air quality — such as whether it is healthy for students to be outside during recess or sports practice. To learn more about the use of low-cost sensors to measure and improve air quality in Denver, read our customer story with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, whose work complements other air quality initiatives in the city, such as the Love My Air program.

While some countries report a single, raw pollutant concentration — like Austria and some regions of Switzerland, which use ozone concentrations alone to communicate overall air quality — many utilize a version of a representative air quality index and an accompanying scale for interpreting the values. 

Different countries differ in the number of levels that they include in their air quality index, with countries across the EU ranging from four levels up to eleven levels dividing tiers of differing degrees of air pollution.

Rather than the color scale used in the U.S. AQI, some countries use shapes or drawings to communicate air quality. This approach can be more user friendly for non-technical audiences, such as kids. 

Countries around the world use a variety of methods to communicate air quality to their citizens. Many countries use drawings or figures, often coupled with a progressive color scale such as that seen in the U.S.’s AQI, to convey information about their air. The air quality scales of France, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and South Korea are displayed above. (Image source: Marron Institute)

Mexico’s air quality index uses drawings that indicate which types of activities are permissible with the current air quality for specific populations, in addition to information about the specific pollutant being measured and the general air quality.

Image source: Marron Institute

There have been some efforts to try to unify this information across larger regions of the globe, such as through Interreg in the EU and the NGO Clean Air Asia, but it can be difficult to harmonize air quality communication due to stark differences in different countries’ air quality and rating systems, such as that seen below with Australia and India.

Australia (a) and India (b) vary drastically in their air quality scales. For example, an AQI of 100-200 in Australia, where the air would be considered poor to very poor, is considered only moderate air quality in India. This is primarily due to vast differences in overall air quality in these countries, reflecting differences in air quality regulation, pollution sources, and pollution reduction actions. (Image source: Marron Institute)

In addition to translating data into a format that most people can understand, it is also important to indicate how recently any given measurement was taken. People may wish to take different actions if they know that air pollution has spiked in the last 15 minutes, for example, but if they only have access to data that is updated on an hourly or daily basis, they may not be able to use this information for intra-day planning of activities. 

This is one of the most common complaints about the AQI approach, in fact, given that even with continuous, real-time monitoring, the U.S. AQI can only be calculated at 1-hour intervals due to the formula that is used to calculate AQI values. In cases where communicating real-time changes to air quality is the goal, other techniques such as 10-minute and 15-minute averages can be more useful than AQI. 

Communicating the climate change co-benefits of improving air quality

In addition to using tools such as AQIs to provide context from a health and behavioral standpoint, communicating the various co-benefits that come with achieving cleaner air, such as mitigating climate change, helps to contextualize the vast health and environmental benefits of improving air quality.

The climate change co-benefits of improving air quality function on the principle that many actions that can be taken to improve air quality, such as switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, also work to combat climate change. For example, one study finds that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50% of their 2005 levels by 2050 can reduce the number of premature deaths resulting from chronic exposure to air pollution by 20% to 40%. 

The inclusion of AQ benefits in the design of climate strategies can be used to motivate stakeholders to take action as AQ benefits are local, nearer term and have health benefits (Nemet et al., 2010).”

Communicating the co-benefits of air pollution reduction can further encourage behavioral change and support policy change for a win-win outcome of improving both overall air quality and reducing the public’s exposure and associated health outcomes. 

We can use the example of communicating these co-benefits in the transportation sector to key stakeholders and the public to illustrate the impacts of including climate co-benefits in data communication. By selecting plans of action that benefit both climate change and air quality — such as choosing energy-efficient vehicles or establishing low-emission zones, rather than a solution that helps climate change but not air quality, like replacing gas with biofuels — these co-benefits can be realized.

It is important to communicate these co-benefits in a way that combines metrics to include socioeconomic, environmental, and health information. 

Communicating these air quality and climate change co-benefits is one way to effectively communicate the benefits of decreasing air pollution that extend beyond air quality itself. Helping citizens and other stakeholders, including environmental entities, understand the role that improving air quality plays in overall environmental health helps to enact meaningful change.

For more information on the co-benefits of improving air quality and mitigating climate change and how they can be leveraged to create the most environmental impact, read our blog on the relationship between air pollution and climate change here.  

Categorizing the stages of air quality communication

Looking at the wide range of air quality communication practices in use around the world, it’s clear that certain regions have more fully-developed air quality communication programs. The table below, provided by Clean Air Asia, is a helpful framework when thinking about categorizing the state of air quality communication in any given region or project — and defining the scope of work for future improvements. 

Stages of Air Quality Communication (Clean Air Asia)

The systems in place to communicate air quality, as well as the manner in which the information is dispersed, develop over time. Underdeveloped communication, where there is no air quality data available to the public, can progress to fully developed communication that includes public warnings and forecasts, extensive publicly available data, and air quality management policies and action plans, creating a system through which the public and all stakeholders are highly informed about the state of the air. (Image source: Clean Air Asia)

As air quality communication progresses:

  • More air quality data becomes available, and it becomes more processed to communicate meaningful information to stakeholders, including health impacts
  • This data becomes updated closer and closer to real-time for the most effective information
  • Specific communication strategies for the public and policymakers are developed
  • Increased public awareness of air quality issues and access to air quality data to help support community initiatives and behavioral and policy change

Why it’s important to make air quality data easily accessible, actionable, and comprehensible

Air quality can be a highly complex and technical topic, yet it is one that affects everyone and has monumental health and environmental impacts.

Accessible, understandable air quality data supports community groups, local residents, and city officials to make well-informed decisions about how to protect the public from air quality exposure, ensuring that the data collected becomes actionable. Collecting accurate air quality data is the first step in supporting ground-truthed behavioral and policy change, but for this data to make an impact, it must be communicated effectively to stakeholders across a range of technicial know-how.

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