Citizen science as a powerful tool to monitor air pollution: The CanAirIO initiative

Democratizing air quality monitoring is the primary goal of CanAirIO, a Colombian citizen science initiative and one of the projects that participate in Cos4Cloud.
CanAirIO device. Credit: Daniel Bernal.

The project was born in 2018 out of concern about the pollution in Bogota (Colombia). Back then, Daniel Bernal, an electronic engineer and one of CanAirIO funders, used to take the Bogota buses, called TransMilenio. While he was on the bus, he smelled diesel; felt that his cloth absorbed this fuel odour; and observed through the window how the buses ‘painted’ the streets in a cloud of grey. Daniel Bernal then decided to build a sensor to measure Particulate Material PM2.5, an air pollutant, to know the air quality millions of people were daily breathing. Before sharing the first version of the sensor and its results, Daniel tested it in different places. In most areas he detected  PM2.5 (ug/m3) values in the range of 10-40. However, when he measured the PM2.5 in the buses and their routes, he found out that the levels of polluted air were alarmingly high on the bus routes, between 120-200 ug/m3 PM2.5, “a very high value,” points out Daniel. 

After making the results public, Alvaro Vanegas, a system engineer, hardware, and mobile application developer, saw Daniel on TV. He decided then to make a PM2.5 sensor with his experience in mobile apps and electronics. Months later, they joined their efforts, with other friends of the activism open source community, on an open-source code and hardware and started to create a citizen science community.

“We wanted to empower citizens to measure air quality to independently validate official air-quality numbers because what can be measured can be improved,” says Daniel Bernal.

They are now a bigger team and collaborate with several associations and projects interested in measuring air pollution.

Different CanAirIO device components. Photo credit: Álvaro Vanegas.

The CanAirIO initiative uses a do-it-yourself (DIY) sensor that works with low-cost technology and open-source code. Anyone can build this sensor to measure air quality in his/her area, be aware of what he/she breathes, and demand better air quality policy from governments. Since its creation in 2017-2018, its network is continuously growing worldwide. The project already counts on the participation of people from Latin America, EEUU, and Europe.  

Lessons learned – What the citizen science community can learn from CanAirIO? 

Create a citizen science project from the bottom-up

CanAirIO addresses citizens’ needs and concerns; according to Danieal Bernald, this is one of the CanAirIO’s keys to success. “When thinking about creating a citizen science initiative, one should wonder what the people’s main interests are, or, even better, to directly create the project hand in hand with the citizens, what it’s called ‘from the bottom up’.” Additionally, a do-it-yourself initiative is a way to increase people’s commitment to the project, as they are involved in the building.  

Make it easy

Anyone can build their CanAirIO device in a few hours and generate air-quality reports. People don’t need previous training in programming or electronics to make it, besides, people can find the materials in any part of the world, and it is a low-cost sensor, it costs around 40-70 dollars / 35/60 euros. CanAirIO also offers an Android app to connect the mobile phone to the device through Bluetooth and WiFi, allowing air measurements storage. The project also lets the participants choose to share the data they have collected to the cloud to build a pollution map or not to show their data.

“We offer a do-it-yourself sensor very user-friendly and easy to make and open to everyone, and also the freedom to choose what to do with the collected data,” says Daniel. 

CanAirIO team recently published new guidelines to make the CanairIO device creation easier. It is available in Spanish and English

Create a community 

Communicating the results, interacting, and acknowledging the participants’ contributions through social media channels is essential to engage people and keep them motivated. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are an opportunity for the participants to know each other and be informed about the project outputs and news. Daniel highlights that they use “social media to connect with other projects, promote our events, and teach people how to use the CanAirIO device.” 

Organize activities on the field 

CanAirIO project has organized several field activities at a local level in Bogotá: neighborhoods affected by air pollution, schools, sanitary centers, etc. During the practical sessions, they teach the people the relevance to measure air quality and how they can take action about the pollution they are suffering by being part of CanAirIO. “One of the pedagogical activities we organized is one in which we make students build a tank of oxygen with a bottle connected with a mask to represent a future society in which we couldn’t breathe the fresh air because of the pollution,” points out Daniel. 

Join efforts

One of the challenges of citizen science projects is funding and sustainability through the years, as well as and improving the platforms and keeping the community engaged. Collaborating with other projects and countries is critical to find new partnerships and funding opportunities.

“For example, we are now part of Cos4Cloud, which allows us to work in the international environment and spread the word about CanAirIO internationally,” states Daniel. 

CanAirIO team is also part of some citizen science associations such as SciStarter, is a globally acclaimed, online citizen science hub with more than 3,000 projects registered, the ‘Red Iberoamericana de Ciencia Participativa (RICAP)’. Some organizations that fight for a better air quality, among others, ‘Mesa técnica ciudadana de la calidad del aire de Bogotá‘, the ‘Red Nacional del Aire’, or some environmental institutions such as: Trébola Organización Ecológica

Compare your information to the official data 

Another challenge when working in a citizen science initiative is that policymakers, researchers and society consider the data coming from the citizen science projects as a useful and trustable source of information. “I think Cos4Cloud will contribute to increasing the trust in citizen science”, finalizes Daniel. 

One real example of how accurate the data stored by CanAirIO can be is the scientific ‘Personal exposure to air pollutants in a Bus Rapid Transit System: Impact of fleet age and emission standard,’ published by Science Direct. The results matched with the information reported by CanAirIO. 

Online workshops, an opportunity to reach other countries 

Despite the pandemic situation caused by the Covid-19, CanAirIO team, together with the Cos4Cloud project, SciStarter, All of us California, and the National Library of Medicine, has organized online webinars to talk about the project and teach how to build a device. If you can draw, write, or if you and your company or group of friends want to live in a healthy city, you can participate!

CanAirIO webinar.

Link to the video in Spanish. 

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