OpenAQ’s Origin Story
How Our Organization Came To Be
An atmospheric scientist’s role at the US State Department in late 2014 led to the formation of the world’s first open-source database of air quality monitoring data. Christa Hasenkopf was working to compile data on air quality at embassies where there were concerns that diplomatic staff could be impacted by air pollution. As she worked to compile this information, she found that data were either nonexistent or not openly available, and when she could find them, they were typically not easy to access and not standardized.
Christa, and her spouse, Joe Flasher, who at the time worked at Development Seed (an engineering and product company that applies earth data to global challenges), understood the value of open data. They knew it could wake people up to the severity of air pollution and its disproportionate impacts, and that open data could capacitate people to help solve air inequality. And thus the idea was born: a universally accessible, open-source database of interoperable real-time ground-level ambient air quality data. Such a tool could work at any scale, helping inform both local and international efforts to reduce air pollution.
Christa and Joe started poking around. Was anyone compiling air quality data at a global scale? Were they providing the data for free on an open-source platform? Was the data as near to real-time as possible? If not, was anyone interested in doing so? They found no open-source data platform nor any organization willing to take on the task.
Over the course of a weekend, Joe built the prototype, using data from China, India and Mongolia. The architecture was open-source from the beginning so that data could be supplied and code could be suggested by anyone. Once they opened the prototype, things took off. They demonstrated what could be done, and others began to contribute. As data were added from locations around the world, new countries were highlighted. Oftentimes, the data were found only by mining websites for PDFs and scraping that data (true even today!). The concept gained traction, and the platform grew organically, powered by volunteer efforts.
Concurrent with building the platform was getting the word out and fostering its use. This included convincing scientists that the platform was trustworthy and could make their research easier. This was easier said than done, but the research community began to recognize the value of a one-stop shop of harmonized air quality data. Within a few short years, OpenAQ’s efforts and research using the OpenAQ platform were being cited in such prestigious journals as Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics and PLOS One; picked up by such publications as Bloomberg, National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal; and discussed in such venues as FOSS4G and the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
With support from the Earth Journalism Network + Internews, Christa convened OpenAQ’s first international workshop in Mongolia in late 2015. This required a bank account! Thus a formal entity was founded, with Christa and Joe splitting ownership 51%/49%. Additional cross-sectoral workshops in Bosnia, Ghana, India, Kenya and Kosovo were held between 2015 and 2019, sparking initiatives from policy-relevant field campaigns in Bosnia to calls for government open data in Ghana.
But how would OpenAQ sustain itself and pay staff over the long-run? Christa applied for and received a 2-year Echoing Green fellowship, which allowed her to pay her salary and focus on OpenAQ’s business model–how the organization could meet its mission and sustain itself. Early contracts included work with the World Resources Institute, Vital Strategies and Atmospheric and Environment Research. Given that OpenAQ’s co-founders never intended to make a profit, the decision was made in 2017 to apply for nonprofit status. This would allow OpenAQ to stay true to its mission and would open up the door to new funding sources. With pro-bono legal support from the firm Paul Hastings, a board was formed over the course of a year, and OpenAQ was awarded 501(c)(3) status by the IRS as of January of 2018, with Christa serving as Executive Director, the only paid staff member for the next couple of years. Joe continued to support the organization on a volunteer basis.
OpenAQ contracted some database needs to Development Seed and a few individual contractors across the world, but realized the need to bring technical work in-house and to expand its capacity to build strategic partnerships. In early 2020, two key positions were hired: Platform Lead (Sruti Modekurty) and Deputy Director (Chisato Fukuda Calvert).
After five years starting and running OpenAQ, Christa moved on in September of 2020 to assist the ecosystem of air quality data innovators in other ways and is now directing Air Quality Programs at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.
Christa and Joe remain proud supporters of OpenAQ to this day.