CATALYZING CHANGE: THE PUSH FOR OPEN AIR QUALITY DATA IN WEST AFRICA

This is the first in a series of stories that highlight members of the OpenAQ Community and their impact fighting air inequality.

Collins Gameli Hodoli is a catalyst for change in his home country Ghana. As a Ph.D. candidate at Cranfield University, Hodoli dedicates his academic research to the utility of low-cost air quality to bridge air quality data gaps in Ghana and spearheads Clean Air One Atmosphere, an initiative aimed to raise public awareness of air pollution in West Africa. “Public knowledge of air quality and its health impacts are very limited in Ghana. Much of this is due to the pure lack of air quality data. Without data, citizens, scientists, and government leaders alike are not able to enact change. I’m committed to shifting this in practice,” Hodoli explains.

A 2019 study shows that in Africa 780,000 premature deaths annually are linked to air pollution exposure. Specifically in Ghana, 17,000 premature deaths are attributed to poor air quality. Across West Africa, biomass burning, vehicle emissions, and industrial waste are identified as the main contributors to the air pollution problem.

While there have been a few studies in West Africa that examine both the sources and the spatial variability of air quality, there are still a lot of unknowns, particularly in understanding health disparities in neighborhoods as well as the transboundary nature of air pollution in the region.

One of the biggest barriers to developing a more comprehensive understanding of the air pollution landscape is the lack of access to reliable and usable air quality data.

Hodoli understands that the lack of access to air quality data is connected to a broader, overarching challenge — people dedicated to fighting air inequality are oftentimes disconnected from one another due to sectoral or disciplinary silos that prevent meaningful collaboration.

Moving toward collective action

In May 2018, Hodoli participated in the Accra OpenAQ Workshop held in the capital city. “A colleague that I met at a conference in Europe encouraged me to apply to participate in the Accra OpenAQ workshop, and I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the participants,” Hodoli remarked. He joined 30 other committed individuals representing diverse sectors from software development, scientific research, policy development, to journalism. The Accra OpenAQ Workshop was designed to bring together the Accra community to find new ways to utilize open air quality data to strengthen existing initiatives and brainstorm new ones to fight air inequality. The workshop served as a “launching pad” for joining the broader global OpenAQ Community and catalyzing future engagements. As part of the OpenAQ workshop process, Collins also joined the pre-workshop gatherings where participants got to know one another’s work and interests in air quality more informally prior to the workshop.

Following the two-day interactive workshop filled with opportunities to connect with one another as well as with virtual participants from the U.S., the workshop participants committed to developing a Community Statement on air quality in Ghana. The Community Statement carefully articulated the current state of air quality issues in the country, the urgent need for air quality data, and a push for open air quality data to be accessible to the public:

Above: An excerpt from the Community Statement formed by Accra OpenAQ Workshop participants

Committed to building upon this Community Statement to reach a broader audience in scientific research and policy circles, Hodoli and two other workshop participants, Aidatu Abubakari and Gameli Adzaho published a Call for Action, claiming the need for open data on air quality monitoring in Ghana. In this publication, they outline the need for open air quality data in order to develop a more robust infrastructure that includes reliable internet access, real-time air quality monitors, and dedicated staff to upkeep data management. They propose low-cost air quality sensors as an important solution for creating a foundational infrastructure for a more robust and reliable air quality monitoring system in his hometown.

Support from across the Atlantic

This Call for Action was heard across the ocean in the U.S. and the Clean Air One Atmosphere received a donation of two air quality monitoring devices from PurpleAir and 16 air quality sensors from Dr. Darby Jack, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University.

“These donations [of air quality monitoring equipment] were a direct result of the partnerships that I built with innovative leaders at the Accra OpenAQ Workshop, the Community Statement, and Call for Action. I cannot thank OpenAQ enough for making this possible,” Hodoli explains.

Above: The Clean Air One Atmosphere team giving a talk to students in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Cape Coast

Hodoli and his colleagues, Anthony Kporsu and Kenneth Kwakey-Gyamfi have started to launch Clean Air One Atmosphere Clubs in a number of universities across the region including the University of Cape Coast and the University of Health and Allied Sciences in the Hohoe, Volta region of Ghana. The goal of these clubs is to engage university students in air quality projects in order to raise public awareness of air pollution’s detrimental effects in the region. Hodoli also aims to install low-cost air quality sensors on these university campuses so that students can engage in the process of data collection and analysis.

Above: The Yakokoe application’s main interface

In addition to his work with students, in 2018, Hodoli and his team, Anthony Kporsu and Kenneth Kwakye-Gymafi launched Yakokoe, a mobile application built to engage, educate and empower citizens to use air quality data to make informed decisions about how to protect their health. The application provides users with free air quality data in their region and its associated health risks by sharing an Air Quality Index (AQI) that has different thresholds based on risk levels. The application draws from air quality data available on PurpleAir.

Moving the Needle toward open data

Above: Preliminary visualizations developed by Clean Air One Atmosphere

Hodoli is currently undertaking preliminary analysis of the low-cost sensors in Ghana under the Ghana Urban Air Quality Project led by Clean Air One Atmosphere Patron, Dr. Kofi Amegah. Given the limitation of the number experts and the varied data formats, he is going to look into open source data mining tools. He is galvanizing support for this through regional efforts across Africa via Slack. Clean Air One Atmosphere will support groups across Africa that will not only deploy and look at the data but be able to visualize the data in a comprehensive way. He expects results to be published in an academic article with his collaborators.

Clean Air One Atmosphere is also exploring a collaboration with OpenAQ to share its low-cost air quality sensor data on the OpenAQ Low-cost Sensor Platform which will harmonize aggregated data into a universally accessible data format. Making Ghana-based air quality data open and easily accessible on the OpenAQ platform could potentially scale impact, as it would put Ghana and West Africa on the radar of the rest of the world.

“I always believe in the power of the ‘butterfly effect’. Even the smallest local change can have drastic effects elsewhere in the world.”

Acknowledgements:

The Clean Air One Atmosphere team would like to express their sincere gratitude to Dr. Pallavi Pant, whom Hodoli met at the OpenAQ Accra Workshop for her continuous support.

Are you interested in contributing low cost sensor data? Please complete this public form.

To learn more about Clean Air One Atmosphere, follow them on Twitter.

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.