When Delhi was declared the world’s most polluted city, all Indians were shocked. Our capital had dethroned China’s cities to take this ignominious title. The team at IndiaSpend, however, decided to unearth what this meant and use data to validate the claim. They invested in low cost devices to monitor air quality and track Delhi’s pollution levels. When the odd-even rule was enforced in January this year to combat the pollution levels, IndiaSpend became the go-to source for data on the capital’s pollution levels. The concept has now been deployed across the country in 13 cities.
These low cost devices are simple and easy to install. They measure the particulate matter in the air and can also live-stream the data to Breathe servers for easy data access. IndiaSpend’s efforts were recognised with the mBillionth Award at this year’s edition. Networked India spoke to Ronak Sutaria who is closely involved in this initiative about its impact and reach and how data is the key to understanding a problem and resolving it. He also talks about the role of social media in galvanising action on matters like pollution as well as a new form of journalism called ‘sensor journalism.’
Networked India (NI): IndiaSpend is India’s first ‘data journalism initiative’. Tell us a bit about this initiative in the context of the environmental issues the country currently faces.
Ronak Sutaria (RS): Clean air is a public good. Every citizen is entitled to good, quality air, and yet as citizens we have very practically no control or say in the matter. In December 2015 when Delhi was classified as the most polluted city in the world, surpassing Beijing. The team at IndiaSpend were keen to understand how we managed to bag this infamous title and in the process of collating data on air quality levels, we quickly realised that there was very scanty and sketchy information available. Clearly, real-information information on air quality levels across the country was not available or accessible on a consistent and real-time basis and this made any analysis extremely difficult .
As data journalists we felt constrained by the lack of tangible, credible and more importantly real-time data and that led us to sensor journalism. Globally, this form of journalism is still in a nascent stage.
In the absence of an air quality measurement system we decided to develop and deploy our own devices and track the information over a period of time. Fergus Pitt in his paper for the Tow Center of Digital Journalism refers to sensor journalism as a form of journalism that involves the surrounding communities, journalists using sensors need to be prepared for trial and error processes and more importantly, sensor journalism adds colour to data. Sensor journalism is not designed to work in vacuum, it is a tool for journalists to use alongside conventional research and reporting.
IndiaSpend is India’s first data journalism initiative, and #Breathe is the country first effort in sensor journalism.
NI: IndiaSpend #Breathe uses low cost devices to monitor air quality. Give us some more background on this project and the devices used.
RS: In March 2015 we started the development of low-cost devices, and the prototype was ready in September 2015. We deployed the first tranche of low cost devices in December 2015. Our devices are developed indigenously in Pune and cost Rs. 15,000/- (Rs. Fifteen Thousand only) while the imported E-BAM monitors that the government procures is in the range of US$ 20,000 per device. We are encouraged by the performance of our devices as the findings are comparable to the E-BAM devices.
During the implementation of Delhi odd-even experiment in the state of Delhi, our readings/findings were referred to on an extensive basis. Microsoft is currently using our devices along with other international machines sourced from Spain etc. and the readings are comparable – which is validation of our acceptance.
NI: How does the Breathe air quality monitoring device work? What is the extent of the network?
RS: We have over 75 air quality monitoring stations in 13 cities namely Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Agra, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Mumbai, Pune, Patna, Ranchi and Varanasi.
The AQI levels from each and every monitoring device are accessible on real-time basis and available on the #Breathe dashboard Link: http://breathe.indiaspend.org/
NI: Tell us about the team involved in this project.
RS: This is a bootstrapped project and the team comprises Govindraj Ethiraj, founder IndiaSpend, Ronak Sutaria, chief architect and has three team members looking after the production of devices, deployment and project management respectively.
NI: Since the time it was launched how much impact do you feel it has made on the life of the common citizen? How can one access the information?
RS: We had deployed our devices in December 2015 and barely a month later we found ourselves in television studios sitting across representatives of the Delhi state government countering allegations, which in a sense was a trial-by-fire debut for us. This incident confirmed our hypothesis that in the presence of data, the discourse becomes more meaningful and solution-oriented, compared to sharing opinions and anecdotal information. During the implementation of Delhi odd-even experiment in the state of Delhi, our readings/findings were referred to on an extensive basis. For the first time, the arguments were based and grounded in facts as opposed to opinions.
NI: Through IndiaSpend’s unique collaboration with Twitter under the label #Breathe users were able to attach their location to the label and know about its air quality. How do you see the role of social media like Twitter and Facebook influencing citizen action on national matters like air quality?
RS: Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and tools such as Change.org can play an important role in generating awareness among the public, and as we have seen in various instances, social media has played a pivotal role in forcing governments to address issues and take action.
— IndiaSpend Breathe (@IndiaSpendAir) April 24, 2016
NI: What action, in your opinion, can the common man take to improve at least local air quality?
RS: Citizen engagement in India is coming of age, democracies that have enlightened and involved citizens progress at a faster, equitable and effective pace. If we can provide citizens with data and information on aspects that matter to their every day lives be it in areas of education, urban planning, healthcare etc. they can contribute in policymaking and impact the decisions taken by their governing bodies at a local or national level.
NI: IndiaSpend’s Breathe project was recently awarded the mBillionth Award 2016. What does this accolade mean for the future of the project?
RS: The award recognizes IndiaSpend #Breathe for “innovating India’s first low-cost air quality monitoring & enabling a dialogue among citizens”.
The #Breathe movement project started with a modest goal of building a citizen science movement using low-cost air quality monitoring devices. We believe that each and every citizen in this country is entitled to clean air, and that monitoring air quality is a public good. Policies which are implemented to improve air quality need to be evaluated based on facts and backed by data. In the past few months, we have noticed an interesting trend, real estate development firms in their advertisements have started showing air quality index (AQI) levels of neighbourhood where residential complexes are under construction, clearly establishing the fact that potential buyers are interested in a better quality of life, and not just in the amenities in a housing complex. Over the past one year, we have seen the air quality levels becoming a part of the mainstream news and media discourse.