Do you know if you’re breathing clean air? Often you don’t, without access to air-quality data.
But a first-of-its-kind program is bringing air-quality expertise to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, and citizen scientists are putting this important health data at everyone’s fingertips.
Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the air-quality measurements can help an asthmatic kid in the nearby community decide safe times to play outdoors or an elderly couple find the healthiest times to take a walk.
Until recently, in many countries, high-quality, real-time data has not been available. But since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency teamed up with the State Department in 2015, 13 U.S. embassies and consulates are reporting data live on the AirNow platform. Eleven additional locations are expected to do so by fall 2016. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing launched the first air-quality monitoring effort in 2008, and it was followed by efforts in Peru, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mongolia, India and other countries.
What’s more, in 2016 U.S. experts will form an inaugural class of embassy air-quality fellows. They will “adopt an embassy” to train staff and share information with interested host governments.
Distribution of data collected in China has helped spark a wider understanding of the connection between pollution and health. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy says that when she visits Beijing, she sees people checking their phones for the latest updates. “Information and transparency empowers us to reduce health risks associated with air pollution,” she says.
Because the State Department air-quality data is publicly available, developers have used it to make apps, conduct research and spark conversations about air pollution. This data is making cities smarter and healthier.
Secretary of State John Kerry notes that the United States has developed a lot of experience with the subject, reducing air pollution by nearly 70 percent since the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s. “We want to share what we have learned with other countries in the world,” he says.
Helaina Matza of the Greening Diplomacy Initiative — which encompasses embassy air-quality monitoring program and the associated fellowship — sees exciting new possibilities.
“Already, this data has sparked ideas and partnerships that will not only enhance the United States’ scientific understanding of air pollution, but also the global community’s,” she says.