BRIDGING THE GAP: AIR QUALITY DATA COMMUNICATION IN INDIA AND ACROSS THE GLOBE
By Chisato Calvert, Deputy Director at OpenAQ
This is the second in a series of stories that highlight members of the OpenAQ Community and their impact fighting air inequality.
The power of translation
How can we harness the power of scientific data to communicate powerful stories of air inequality across the globe? This is the key question and motivator for Sarath Guttikunda, founder of Urban Emissions. Based in Goa, Guttikunda has both studied and lived in some of the most polluted cities in India and across the globe.
His journey started as a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering when he collaborated on a World Bank study in China in 1999–2000. The goal of this project was to provide technical assistance to the Chinese government on sulfur pollution from coal-fired power plants. During several meetings with Chinese government officials, Guttikunda was struck by the gap in communicating the risks and impacts of the power plants and large industries. While he and his team presented the scientific evidence, decision-makers needed something easier than the equations and maps. “I realized that no matter how much scientific data we collected, it wouldn’t lead to scalable change unless we were able to communicate it in a meaningful way to different groups,” he explained. This led to an overnight development of the first version of the SIM-air family of tools, now equipped with tools to optimize among management options for costs and health benefits.
Guttinkunda faced a similar challenge in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia where he worked with the local air quality management division to propose air quality solutions to the Ministry of Environment. “This was a big turning point for me. It helped me recognize the importance of context and translation.”
Prompted by these on-the-ground experiences in highly polluted cities, in 2007, Guttikunda founded Urban Emissions with the aim to increase public awareness on how to tackle air pollution.
“If this [scientific data] needs to be translated into policy, what kind of information do we need? What changes do we need? What information do we need? We need to find ways to link data and tell a powerful story. This will help reveal where the gaps are and what can be done at a larger scale.”
Guttikunda’s vision for Urban Emissions is to provide a repository of diverse information — interactive maps, graphs, and scientific publications — related to air pollution that can be used for advocacy and public awareness building, particularly among researchers, government officials, and civil society groups. The studies and tools available in the repository are categorized by city, emissions source, place-based forecasts, and broader scientific publications.
Accessing open data for forecasting
While Guttikunda was developing these resources, he sought after reliable, open air quality data that could be utilized to create powerful regional-specific maps and forecasting tools that could help decision-makers more effectively enact change. He found the OpenAQ platform to play a pivotal role in developing models.
“[OpenAQ] is the only platform that exists that provides access to raw air quality data in real-time as well as historical data. It’s really monumental,” Guttikunda explains.
Urban Emissions began to utilize the data on OpenAQ actively in 2016, with the launch of the All India Air Quality Forecast System and an air quality forecasting system for the National Capital Region of Delhi. This system draws from trans-boundary, national, regional, and local information relevant for analyzing air pollution to better support a long-term air quality management plan as well as a short-term public health alert system. Access to the air quality data available on OpenAQ has enabled Urban Emissions to showcase general trends and visualizations on the effects of climatic events like dust storms and cultural celebrations like Diwali where fireworks produce high levels of air pollution.
Guttikunda explains that the forecasting system has shifted the way that people engage with air quality data, making it more accessible and pertinent to the broader public.
“We can target more specifically to the public’s use, and also monitor what the forecast would look like tomorrow. Anyone who visits the website will be able to access the forecasting and monitoring data, including hour by hour trends, and temporal and spatial patterns for multiple pollutants,” Guttikunda explains.
Pushing for policy change
While the process of engaging in the “translation work” of scientific data has been challenging, Urban Emissions has been successful in making great strides to the support of various policy changes. By combining information on pollution trends and sources of air pollution, Urban Emissions engages directly with city authorities to inform them about the local context of the air pollution problem.
For example, the city of Patna is currently utilizing the analysis provided by Urban Emissions to create a city-wide action plan and clean air program. Patna is just one of the 122 cities across all districts in India to follow Urban Emissions’ lead.
Furthermore, the Indian parliament has set forth a new set of regulations on power plants as a result of the analysis and recommendations put forth by Urban Emissions for current and proposed coal-fired power plants in India.
“The key is, rather than pushing governments in a pressurized way, we encourage them to look at the data, and reach out to us if they are interested in making next steps,” Guttikunda explains. Urban Emissions continues to take a very hands-on approach to engage with different stakeholders with an understanding of the varied political and cultural contexts.
The Sky is the Limit
Urban Emissions continues to play an important role in bridging the gap between scientific modeling and accessible air quality information. While they are most active in India, they have been expanding to study other parts of the world. Given the current trends in public engagement, Guttikunda is optimistic about the future of air pollution mitigation.
“The public is now really engaging with the information and asking questions. And there is more data available today than there ever was. So, it’s a very hopeful time to be engaged in air quality work. The more data sharing and storytelling we do collectively, the more we will be equipped to change the air we breathe.”
Urban Emissions would like to thank Dr. Christa Hasenkopf and Joe Flasher for their important contribution in making ground-level air quality monitoring data available across the world.