Image above courtesy of OpenAQ's world air quality map, featuring data from more than 37,000 air pollution measurement points worldwide.

TL;DR — As air pollution takes center stage in conversations about the global environmental crisis, there has been a push for greater access to air quality data. Making air quality data available to the public is the first step to raising awareness about the impact of the quality of air we breathe. While globally less than half of countries produce air quality data that is accessible to the public, a variety of platforms are emerging to make air quality data more accessible so that it can be used to support community-level air quality initiatives, enable research, improve air quality tools like forecasting models, hold polluters accountable, and allow for regional cooperation, among other initiatives to improve our air.

The current state of air quality data access

In a world that is facing multifaceted environmental crises, access to air quality data is an essential first step to understanding the role that air pollution plays. Currently, only about half of the world’s governments produce air quality data — meaning that approximately 1.4 billion people do not have access to government-sponsored air quality data.

According to OpenAQ’s 2020 report Open Air Quality Data: The Global State of Play, 51 per cent of countries — in which 1.4 billion people live — do not produce publicly-available air quality data despite air pollution being called ‘the greatest environmental risk to health’ by the WHO.

An even lower portion — just under 40% of governments — make real-time air quality data accessible to the public. The population of the approximate 60% of countries that produce official air quality data but do not provide citizens with open access to it totals roughly 2.1 billion people.

According to OpenAQ’s 2020 Global State of Play report, those countries with the worst air quality tend to have the least amount of access to air quality data. The report, which analyzed 500 million data points from 11,000 monitoring stations in 93 countries, found that the number of air quality monitoring stations was inversely related to PM2.5 pollution levels — the higher the air pollution concentrations, the lower the availability of air quality data from government sources.

Open access to data is especially important when it comes to air quality because air pollution does not recognize borders. Any datasets that are siloed by national boundaries will provide an incomplete picture of regional and global air pollution trends.

As air quality measurement is democratized with the advent of more affordable, accessible technologies such as low-cost sensors, it’s important to have platforms that display direct, real-time air quality data — which represent a leap forward from the traditional databases that only displayed data from a limited number of stationary monitors without real-time capability.

Access to air quality data is highly important for a variety of stakeholders, including researchers and those communities facing the highest exposure to air pollution — that’s why Clarity has enabled customers to provide open access to air quality data through a variety of options including Clarity OpenMap and the OpenAQ platform

An overview of open data platforms

At the national level, the USEPA’s AirData platform served as a good example of how government-sponsored air quality data can be made openly available to citizens. This platform for air quality data in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands is primarily derived from the Air Quality System, and includes tools such as the AirNow visualization platform that provides an interactive approach to viewing air quality and fire information.

The US EPA's open air pollution data platform provides an interactive map of all air quality monitors located in the United States. (Image source: AirNow)

Beyond national efforts to aggregate data, there are a number of parties looking to improve air quality access at the global level. OpenAQ is one such platform that works to connect communities and researchers with open data to fight air pollution and inequality worldwide. OpenAQ aggregates air quality data from government air quality monitors, research-grade monitors, and other monitoring technologies such as low-cost sensors. 

The OpenAQ data platform provides a world map, compiling air quality measurements from both reference-grade and low-cost sensors, to create a picture of air quality in a given area. By aggregating such a high number of data points, individuals can find out more about the air quality in their area, even at the neighborhood level. (Image source: OpenAQ)

We’ll discuss later on the specific impacts that OpenAQ has on improving air quality. To learn more about our partnership with OpenAQ to integrate low-cost sensor data into their open-access platform, you can read our joint announcement here.

The World Air Quality Index is another global platform that integrates air quality data into a visualization of where air pollution levels stand across the globe. 

The Tropospheric Ozone Assessment Report (TOAR) is the world’s largest database of global ozone metrics, aggregating measurements from over 10,000 ozone monitoring stations across the world. This high volume of data helps to support scientific assessment of tropospheric ozone’s global distribution and trends, and its open-access approach provides those investigating ozone’s impacts on outcomes such as the climate, human health, and ecosystem health a rich source of data to support their endeavors.

It is important to note that even in databases that bring together a high volume of data, significant coverage gaps exist across the world. Many regions — such as Africa, Central and South America, Central and Southern Asia, and the Middle East — lack sufficient air quality monitoring coverage of harmful pollutants. Without fully understanding the state of air pollution in these regions, the improvement of overall air quality and its associated health and environmental impacts cannot be fully realized.

Why open-access air quality data is important for air quality research and action

Open-access air quality data opens the doors for a wide array of possible actions that can be taken to improve air quality, public health, and general environmental health. Accurate measurement is the first step in understanding air quality issues and providing citizens with the tools they need to work to solve these issues.

How air quality data empowers community groups to improve their air

One significant benefit of open access to air quality data is that it can serve as a valuable tool for community groups working to improve air quality. For example, AQview is a data platform that will be launched by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to display air quality data from AB 617 communities, combining community data with data from other sources to create a single useful source of air quality data.

Because nonprofits and community groups often face limited funding and resources, open access to existing data can provide them with visibility that they did not previously have into their air quality issues and help them take tangible steps toward improving air quality. Platforms that make air quality data accessible to citizens can empower them to take charge of their air quality — and remain committed to action at the personal, local, state, and national level. 

Environmental justice groups, in particular, can benefit from the higher density of air quality measurements made available by the integration of low-cost sensors into such air quality databases, such as OpenAQ. This “ground truth data” can serve as evidence for the pollution issues that residents already suspect they are facing in their neighborhoods.

Brightline Defense is one example of an organization working to make a significant impact on raising air quality awareness in the city of San Francisco. By deploying low-cost sensors in single-room occupancy (SRO) communities using AB 617 funding, Brightline works to improve air quality in areas that experience a high level of direct air pollution exposure. The organization empowers local residents and students to act as community organizers and support community outreach efforts to increase awareness about the air quality issues they face.

Clarity’s OpenMap platform displays air quality measurements from the low-cost sensors deployed by Brightline Defense across parts of San Francisco, particularly the South of Market neighborhood. The open access to the project’s air quality data allows residents to be informed about the air quality in their area and take both individual action to lower their exposure and campaign collectively for policy changes.

You can read our full customer story with Brightline Defense here. To learn more about AB 617 communities and the fight of environmental justice communities to improve public health and environmental outcomes, read our blog here.

The research applications of open-access air quality data

Open access to air quality data also supports research initiatives by providing a high volume of air quality measurement points across the world, expanding the phenomena that can be explored and studied. 

The scale of data publicly available can have dramatic implications for the insights [from research that are] possible: a series of research studies in limited data contexts can lead to the wrong conclusions if the contexts do not encompass the broader picture or if they are not connected.” — Funk et al., 2017

Dr. Sunni Ivey’s work in the air quality monitoring space through her Air Quality Modeling and Exposure Lab at UC Berkeley provides an excellent example of how air quality data allows research to make important conclusions about air quality. The lab has used The Community Multiscale Air Quality Modeling System (CMAQ) — an open-source USEPA development that provides programs to conduct air quality modeling and uses data from the National Emissions Inventory — to research air pollutant accumulations.  

Another piece of Dr. Ivey’s research uses the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China database to look at how best to prevent and control PM2.5 pollution in one region of China.

To learn more about Dr. Sunni Ivey’s important air quality modeling work that strives to characterize air pollution and reduce community-scale exposure, read our interview with Dr. Ivey here.

The Health Effects Institute (HEI) also demonstrates how open-access air quality data supports research studying air quality. In a variety of studies and reports they have published, such as their report entitled “Understanding the Health Effects of Ambient Ultrafine Particles”, the HEI utilizes open-access air quality data to make important conclusions about protecting human health in the face of air pollution.

The Tropospheric Ozone Assessment Report (TOAR) database, mentioned previously, has been used in research with the Global Burden of Disease project to bias correct models and select the most accurate atmospheric models examining global ozone levels. Access to data means that important conclusions can be made from aggregated air quality data, such as one study that used TOAR data to find that about 365,000 people in the world died in 2019 from ozone pollution exposure

The availability of large, global databases of so many ozone measurement points around the world allows for researchers to arrive at these types of large-scale understandings of global ozone exposure, which would likely not have been possible without available data from so many measurement points to help improve the models used.

NASA has also relied on air quality measurements from open-access platforms to evaluate surface concentrations of different pollutants, such as that done with their GEOS-CF system that produces three-dimensional images of atmospheric composition and pollution distribution. OpenAQ data allowed them to evaluate major pollutant trends, identify the strengths and weaknesses of this system, and forecast air quality information available to those across the globe.

Access to a large volume of air quality measurement points helps to create more accurate air quality models and forecasts. NASA’s GEOS-CF system created the forecasted image shown above, displaying surface ozone composition across the globe and helping to inform about the composition of the air. (Image source: NASA)

In Ghana, Clean Air One Atmosphere works to raise public awareness of air quality in a region with many existing air pollution issues. Access to this air quality data means that scientists, officials, and residents can understand the colossal impact of poor air quality on public health, as well as the ways that certain changes — such as reducing vehicle emissions and biomass burning — can vastly improve these health outcomes.

The organization’s initiative campaigns for greater open access to air quality data to support research, public education and awareness, and innovation. Clean Air One Atmosphere Clubs are also being established across universities to install low-cost sensors, paired with an app, to empower citizens to take charge of their air quality.

Air quality data can also be used to improve modeling and forecasting on a more individual level. The Norwegian company Airmine used data from OpenAQ to create an air quality forecasting system in their app, working to raise public awareness and help protect the public from pollen and allergen exposure. Their app has the capability for daily air quality tracking and larger air quality forecasts, directly available to the public.

The importance of regional cooperation to solve larger air quality issues

Because air quality issues extend across borders and affect people across the globe, it is important that different countries work together to solve air quality issues. 

In North America and Europe, there has been a history of cooperation between nations, such as under intergovernmental agreements and cooperative agreements such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-Range Transport of Air Pollution (LRTAP) as well as other EU legislation and agreements between the U.S. and Canada.

There has generally been a large degree of political will to share data in Europe, allowing for policies working towards air pollution emissions reduction across the European Union over the last 40 years.

A report from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) looked at increasing efforts to promote regional cooperation in the Northeast Asia region (consisting of China, Japan, and Korea), moving away from the traditional air quality management paradigm that extends only to the national scale, but not beyond.

Many countries in Asia face significant air pollution, resulting in extensive costs to public and environmental health. In Northeast Asia, countries vary in the degree of air pollution they experience — with Japan having generally cleaner air compared to China, and Korea lying in the middle. Regional cooperation between nearby countries is highly important to arrive at sustainable, long-term solutions to improving air quality. (Image source)

Though these governments and many related organizations show a willingness to cooperate, they lack participation from the public — a key driver for government action. 

However, the future of regional cooperation to solve air quality issues looks promising. By developing a strong consensus between the scientific community and the public, we can arrive at a common understanding of air quality issues. With public support rallying behind scientifically-backed policy, governments can garner the economic resources and administrative support we need to work toward solutions.

Holding air polluters accountable

Although industrial facilities and other polluters face air pollution standards in many regions, real-time air quality plays an important role in keeping these polluters accountable. Open access, up-to-date air quality data puts the power in the hands of local authorities, community members, and other stakeholders to monitor what levels of air pollution exist near the pollution sources in their communities.

Real-time air quality data helps big polluters work within their corporate responsibility team or to partner with local environmental authorities to design appropriate emissions cutback initiatives.” — World Economic Forum

Providing open access to air quality data can also help industrial operators gain approval within the local community and with other stakeholders, providing them with a “social license to operate”. By limiting their emissions not only for regulatory reasons but also for social and environmental ones, industrial operators can position themselves as transparent and socially-aware. 

Challenges and limitations to advancing open-access air quality data

Though open access to air quality data can pave the way for greater air quality awareness in a variety of sectors, there are also many challenges and limitations that come with attempts to standardize and harmonize global air quality data.

One issue stems from a lack of funding for air quality monitoring technology across the world. According to a report from OpenAQ, there is a lack of financial support from wealthier countries and individuals in overseas development funds for open data and air pollution management despite the vast costs — both human and economic — of air pollution. Out of a total of $150 billion invested by philanthropic foundations each year as approximated by 2018 data, outdoor air quality only receives 0.02% (or $30 million) of this funding.

Many economically developing countries face limited resources to set up and maintain air quality networks, but doing so would have large positive effects — the same report finds that investing in government air quality monitoring in 13 countries would affect the air that one billion people around the globe breathe.

Data quality and transparency is another issue faced when trying to advance open data. Open-access air quality data should be high quality, and databases should be transparent about where this data comes from and the quality assurance process that it undergoes so that conclusions based on the data are accurate. 

Another issue faced when looking at data is equivalency, or whether data is presented in the same format and measured in a consistent way in order to be able to compare data from different databases and data sets. Data equivalency ensures that data can be used across datasets and platforms in a meaningful and cohesive way.

Making open access to air quality data an important step in improving overall air quality

Open access to air quality data supports a variety of improvements to air quality:

  • Public health, public engagement, and community awareness in air quality and other environmental issues
  • Research and innovation
  • Improvement to air quality tools, such as atmospheric models and air quality forecasting
  • Polluter accountability and policy change

Interested in collecting air pollution measurements and contributing to our collective air quality knowledge? Get in touch with Clarity to learn more about our Sensing-as-a-Service solution for governments, businesses, and community organizations!