Using gadgets and data to fight pollution

IndiaSpend’s Breathe project keeps tabs on the air around you, at a time when air pollution is a major menace


Govindraj Ethiraj (right), founder of IndiaSpend, and Ronak Sutaria, Breathe project leader. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Govindraj Ethiraj (right), founder of IndiaSpend, and Ronak Sutaria, Breathe project leader. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Mumbai: In early 2015, Govindraj Ethiraj, founder of data journalism initiative IndiaSpend, read an article on the American Embassy’s AirNow website that collates and presents air quality data from five Indian cities including Delhi and Mumbai. The story said Delhi, and not Beijing, was the most polluted city in the world.

“It was an eye-opener. We at IndiaSpend started looking for more data. But we discovered that the only source of these data in India was the US Embassy’s air quality index monitor,” Ethiraj says. In December 2015, IndiaSpend launched a low-cost sensor in Delhi that not only records air quality but also transmits the data in real time using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) technology. IndiaSpend’s ‘Breathe’ project, using this device, automatically and continuously streams air quality data via a mobile network.

Besides Delhi, ‘Breathe’ project has deployed these devices in Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Agra, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Kanpur, Lucknow, Patna, Varanasi, Bhopal and Ranchi, and will soon launch them in Chandigarh, Raipur and Jaipur.

Breathe project leader Ronak Sutaria says the cities where project will go live soon are Tier-II cities which are on the World Health Organisation’s list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

Currently, Breathe has 78 air quality monitoring devices deployed all over India.

IndiaSpend’s Breathe is one of the winners at the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s mBillionth awards 2016, in the Agriculture and Environment category.

Ethiraj describes Breathe as a “conference of several factors and triggers”. “The immediate trigger was the story on the US Embassy’s website. But several related things were happening around the world in this sector. Technology to measure air quality was coming into the reach of people. In the US and Brazil, several non-profit organisations had started working on developing low-cost devices. So we decided to launch a pilot,” Ethiraj says.

The project is a pioneer. The low-end sensor, coupled with GPRS-enabled transmitters, is a new innovation in India as many high-end and expensive sensors do not usually come with transmission capabilities.

In a country like India where democratisation of technology is essential to amplify the message on climate change, the low-cost sensor device has been a game changer.

Sutaria says the device has been developed and manufactured in India.

It is a low-cost innovation, made in India at a fraction of the cost of comparable foreign equipment: Rs.5,000 per device as compared with $20,000 for imported Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (E-BAM) machines.

The device has been validated by experts in the field and international institutes. Like IndiaSpend itself pioneered data journalism in India, Breathe has been the leader in triggering what Ethiraj calls ‘sensor journalism’.

Breathe is run by a four-member team which is supported by the larger IndiaSpend team.

The biggest challenge comes from more sophisticated and expensive technology. The Breathe team is aware of the limitations of its low-cost approach to air quality measuring which, to achieve its objectives of larger public good, needs exacting scientific standards. “E-BAM is a proven device. We have been constantly benchmarking our device against such high-end ones to see how it stacks up against more sophisticated machines and take it to the next level,” Ethiraj says.

Another challenge has been building the device itself and getting it validated when there is no agency in India to validate this technology.

When IndiaSpend launched the project in December 2015, the timing presented a challenge. Ethiraj recalls that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi introduced the ‘odd-even’ formula in January 2016.

The devices deployed by Breathe in Delhi returned results that showed that air pollution levels were not dropping despite the fall in the number of vehicles on the roads. This happened because vehicular pollution contributes only around 15% to overall air pollution, Sutaria says. This was not a palatable result for the AAP government, which thought that the results were not a good advertisement for the odd-even formula.

IndiaSpend has so far sustained the project by internal funding. But now Breathe needs funding for expansion, deployment of devices, technology upgrades, development of a citizen-centric interface, and monitoring and analysis of real-time data.

The ultimate objective, Ethiraj says, is public advocacy and influencing policy-making by generating a wider debate about the quality of air we breathe.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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