OpenAQ Impact Story
FILLING IN KEY DATA GAPS: PLATFORM CONTRIBUTIONS FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
By Chisato Calvert, Deputy Director of OpenAQ
This is the first story within a broader contributors series featuring OpenAQ Community members and their impact.
Just as the world’s tallest skyscrapers require strong foundations from which to be built, the most effective solutions to combat air pollution require access to data. While the data-sharing infrastructure is invisible, we believe that it is foundational for solving one of the biggest environmental health threats of our time.
There is a common misconception that you need to be an “air quality expert” to fight air inequality. OpenAQ firmly believes that it takes a variety of expertise to more effectively create change in communities across the globe. This contributors series highlights impact profiles of key contributors that have played an integral role in ensuring that air quality data is made openly available to the public in the collective fight against air inequality.
Impact Profile: Andrew Harvey
The devastating 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season destroyed over 25 million acres of land and destroyed over 3,000 homes. The fires also prompted the worst air quality in the country’s history, with PM2.5 levels reaching nearly 200µg/m3 in parts of Sydney and Canberra. Eager to better understand the correlation between bushfire smoke and its health effects, Andrew Harvey, a computer scientist based in Sydney began looking into the air quality data that was available in New South Wales.
“Prior to the fires, I didn’t really know what PM2.5 was. There was a lot of smoke throughout the city, but it seemed like many people didn’t know that they could be directly impacted by this transboundary smoke. I started looking into it and did some research on what kind of data is available and found that it was affecting the New South Wales community at-large,” Harvey explained.
Unlike in the U.S., where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees a ground monitoring air quality network across the country on a national scale, in Australia, air quality monitoring is conducted by each state. According to Harvey, the lack of a centralized data infrastructure makes it difficult to access and utilize the data to examine the transboundary nature of air pollution as the winds carried the smoke across state borders.
“The trick is, you can find air quality sources from each government site, but it can be time intensive to compare data from across the different sites. Each set of air quality data is located in a different place and available in a different format — it’s really challenging to work with such disaggregated data,” Harvey explained.
As Harvey continued to explore different global air quality data platforms, he discovered OpenAQ, a platform that he saw as a streamlined infrastructure that made global air quality data easily accessible to the broader public.
“The OpenAQ platform is so much easier to work with because all of the data is in one place in one standardized format, all available open-source. The fact that OpenAQ makes this data open is great,” Harvey remarked.
When Harvey noticed that most of the data from Australia was missing on the OpenAQ platform, and he reached out to the OpenAQ community on Slack and Github and began adding government-grade data onto the platform. Having learned that the air quality data in Australia was governed under an open license under the Creative Commons attribution, Harvey saw this as an opportunity to make Australia’s air quality data available to the broader public, so that people around the globe could utilize the data to better understand air quality and raise public awareness, particularly in preparation for climate disasters including bushfires to come in the future. Harvey added the data from 50 air quality monitoring stations in Australia onto the OpenAQ platform.
For Harvey, this was an important opportunity to pave the way toward data transparency in the collective fight against air inequality.
“I wanted to contribute by adding air quality data from Australia, so hopefully that data lives on, and other people can find utility in it to create effective solutions,” Harvey concluded.