Fighting Air Inequality through Open Data, Open Source Tools and Collaboration, with Christa Hasenkopf, OpenAQ

OpenAQ aggregates and shares air quality data from around the world in order to fight air inequality.

Fighting Air Inequality, Christa Hasenkopf, OpenAQ

Christa Hasenkopf, OpenAQ

How big of an issue is air pollution? The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every eight deaths on the planet is related to air pollution. That’s more than HIV/AIDS and Malaria combined. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries, creating what Christa Hasenkopf calls “Air Inequality.”

Christa is an atmospheric scientist. In grad school, she focused on the atmosphere of a moon of Saturn called Titan. One day she was talking to a professor from a neighboring university. The professor was telling Christa about Mongolia while showing her pictures on his phone. One particular picture caught her attention. It was a picture of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The heavy pollution of the city reminded her of the gritty atmosphere of Titan.

When Christa searched for studies on the impact of air quality in Mongolia, she found only four studies and one of them was on the impact of air pollution on lichen, not humans. With the help of friends, Christa was able to put together a Fulbright Grant and research project in Mongolia. She stayed for two years, studying air quality and the impact that it had on the region.

While there, she put together a side project with Mongolian colleagues that provided real-time air quality data through social media. She says, “We were in one of the most polluted places in the world. In the wintertime, you can taste the air. And there wasn’t super-easy access to air quality data.” The project had an out-sized impact. They received quite a bit of media coverage. Christa’s Mongolian colleague was called in by the Mongolian parliament to talk about air quality issues.

Seeing the impact of open data changed the trajectory of Christa’s career. Over the next few years, she realized that there were millions of points of data already available, but it was not available in a user-friendly format. Initially she and her cofounder Joe Flasher tried to convince other organizations who were already aggregating the data to open the data for others to use. But eventually, she and Joe realized that no one else was going to do what she thought needed to be done That is when she decided to launch OpenAQ.

OpenAQ aggregates air quality data from millions of sources. They make the data available to anyone through open data sharing. Even their platform is open. Their code is available to anyone on GitHub. The key to OpenAQ is open collaboration and cooperation.

In the beginning, they were trying to attract collaborators and funders, but were having a hard time. Then they decided to build a basic model with two or three data sets. Christa told me, “As soon as we had something more tangible, a website with a much simpler system than we have now, something that people can see, something that people can use at some level…It was way easier to convince funders once we had that piece.”

They started in June, 2015 with air quality data from two or three countries. Now they are aggregating data from 43 countries. They have more than 40 million open data points. On a monthly basis, they see between half a million and 750,000 requests for data on their platform. Over 122 countries have accessed the platform.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Christa Hasenkopf

“It’s clear there was a pollution issue, but there wasn’t a lot of data.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I hadn’t appreciated the scale of the impact on public health.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“In the wintertime, you can taste the air.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I don’t think I knew the phrase open data then.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“We started in our living room.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ“]

“It wasn’t my original design to build OpenAQ. It was to get other groups to do what we’re doing.”

“We made our entire platform open. So, people around the world are helping us build this thing.”

“It takes a community, not just to use the data, but to build the platform.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”“A cool tool built in Jakarta can be used in New York.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I’d never had someone give me a hug for data before.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“One of the ideas we stress is air inequality.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ #airinequality”]

“If there’s something that’s responsible for 1 out of 8 deaths, it deserves its own term.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”“We needed some tangible piece.” Christa Hasenkopf, @Open_AQ“]

“When you seek funding, have something tangible that you have already built.”

“The platform is doing the work for us.”

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

More Stories of Sustainable Development Goal 3, Good Health and Well-Being

In 2017, we’re emphasizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In March, we are focusing on Sustainable Development Goal 3, Good Health and Well-Being. You can read more about Sustainable Development Goal 1 here, Sustainable Development Goal 2 here, or learn about all of the Sustainable Development Goals here.

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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