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Wide-open skies, and open data

How one researcher created a platform that’s revolutionized how we think about air quality.

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Nick Jarvis

There are people online who are donating their brain power and their time, sharing their knowledge to make the world a smarter place. We created the Intel Smartest Brain campaign to celebrate people like Dr. Christa Hasenkopf, whose work won her a laptop powered by the smartest brain for your PC the Intel® Core™ processor.

On cold winter days in Ulaanbaatar, you can see a thin veil of smog envelop the city as residents struggle to keep themselves warm in the brutal Mongolian winters. The capital city is home to 46 percent of the country’s population, and for many, their only home heating sources are coal-burning stoves that pipe fumes into the sky above traditional homes. Mongolians have been using coal to heat their homes for hundreds of years, but Ulaanbaatar’s population has skyrocketed over the last two decades and its smokestacks along with it.

Those smokestacks are exactly why Christa Hasenkopf was drawn to the city in the first place. Hasenkopf, who holds a PhD in atmospheric and oceanic studies from the University of Colorado, was attending a lecture given by a colleague on the climate of the Mongolian steppe. He happened to bring up a picture of Ulaanbaatar, and Hasenkopf was stunned. “I saw the smokestacks and said, ‘wow, that’s some serious pollution,’” she said. “And I started looking into it and it was quite shocking to see how polluted it was, but there were very few studies.” So Hasenkopf, who had recently wrapped up a similar study in Beijing that led to serious environmental changes on the part of the Chinese government, headed to Mongolia to investigate.

Hasenkopf ended up spending two years researching air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, and knew she wanted to give the average citizen the toolkit to do something about their environmental situation. That led her to create OpenAQ, an open data platform that lets individuals see their localized air quality data and monitor levels of things like particulate matter and carbon monoxide. OpenAQ currently collects data in 75 countries from real-time government and research-grade sources. Hasenkopf was recently selected as one of three winners in Intel’s Smartest Brain competition, and the nonprofit will receive an Intel® Core™ processor-equipped Acer Swift 7 laptop to continue their research.

Hasenkopf sees OpenAQ as a way for those most impacted by air pollution to compel their governments to do something. “The populations that are most affected are least heard and least empowered to do something about it,” she said. “There’s unequal access to the right to breathe.” Hasenkopf is trying to even the playing field, one data point at a time.

For Hasenkopf, that process begins with technology. People don’t need to be motivated to do something about air quality, she said, but they do need the tools to be able to do something about them. That’s where tech comes in. “There’s a gap in the access to [air quality] data that people can get. It creates a huge log jam,” Hasenkopf said. “But when that data is all of a sudden shared out on social media and pulled into apps and people start getting alerts, they can be provoked into action and create an outcry.” Whether it’s someone building powerful air quality models that drive a government to action or a programmer using a PC to create an open-source API that engages a population, technology builds that bridge between data and action and allows platforms like OpenAQ to thrive. “The Intel PC will allow OpenAQ to continue making the world’s air quality data more transparent and easily accessible to the public,” Hasenkopf said. Tech-driven transparency is what makes Hasenkopf tick.

OpenAQ’s mission is simple: Make air quality data more accessible. The platform lets researchers, governments, and organizations upload rich localized data and share it with their communities and the global community at-large. You can use OpenAQ to look at the most recent sulfur dioxide readings in Medellin, Colombia, or particulate matter measurements in New Delhi, India.

By making the platform open, Hasenkopf is also encouraging a global consciousness on air quality, where activists, researchers, and journalists can collaborate on environmental issues from anywhere. “We had a journalist from Ulaanbaatar who wanted to write an article in the city paper about the city’s pollution problem,” Hasenkopf said. The journalist wanted to compare her city’s pollution with that of Beijing in order to make the argument that Ulaanbaatar’s air quality issue was serious. She had trouble making sense of the data, so she reached out to the OpenAQ community for help. “She ended up linking up with this statistician from France who had built a data visualization package that could help illustrate data from our system,” Hasenkopf said. “They teamed up together, this statistician and this journalist, and she was able to craft a really compelling story out of it.”

But the connections that Hasenkopf creates aren’t just digital. She also convenes workshops of researchers, community members, government officials, industry representatives, and journalists where members incubate approaches for improving air quality. At one workshop in Accra, Ghana, OpenAQ members engaged in multidisciplinary conversations that led to the creation of a set of community demands and inclusion in a widely read African air quality academic journal. That led to labs donating low-cost air monitors that allowed Ghanaian researchers to investigate the extent of the air quality issues in Accra. It’s a testament to the people driving OpenAQ as well as Hasenkopf’s commitment to creating communities through technology.

When asked about those years spent looking into Ulaanbaatar’s mask of smog, she remembers the students the most. They were angry, passionate, energized, and full of a desire to do something — anything — about the predicament they found themselves in. Air quality can be a tough issue to feel like individual choices can make a difference. How can one person lift that soot-filled canopy off an entire city? OpenAQ gives people the tools they need not to feel so helpless. Data can be empowering for the average citizen. “You can go from complaining to creating,” Hasenkopf said, referring to an OpenAQ member who created an app that uses social media to disseminate air quality information. “Without that information, your choices are pretty limited. When you have data, you can at least start seeing the bigger picture and how we all fit into it.”

“You have communities activated on the issues. They just need access to that data.”