Mongolians target open data to monitor choking air

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Copyright: Elena Chernyshova/Panos

Speed read

  • Citizens and policymakers could help gather standardised air quality data
  • OpenAQ’s online system would offer updates on local air pollution
  • The government is shutting down fund that supports clean air efforts

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[ULAANBAATAR] Mongolians are increasingly turning to open data and smartphone apps to monitor air quality as the country’s government reveals it is to axe funds for clean air efforts, according to advocates.

The country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is heavily polluted, yet data on pollution hotspots and trends is rare, according to OpenAQ, a not-for-profit that collects global air quality data to create an online database for use by researchers and journalists.

During a workshop in the city on 18-20 November, OpenAQ members discussed with citizens and local policymakers how they could help gather standardised air quality data and share this with scientists and the public to raise awareness of the problem.

“By making air quality levels a daily part of their lives, the public can grow more conscious.”

Altantur Bayarsaikhan, National University of Mongolia

The workshop was organised by OpenAQ’s US founders, atmospheric scientist Christa Hasenkopf and software developer Joseph Flasher. Subscribers to their online system will get a daily update on local air quality, they told the audience.

This kind of information is especially important to flag up exposure to hazardous air pollution among people who may be unaware of it, says Altantur Bayarsaikhan, a software development student at the National University of Mongolia, who attended the workshop.

“It will help the application’s users understand the connection between real-time data and their actual experiences with air pollution,” he says. “By making air quality levels a daily part of their lives, the public can grow more conscious.”

According to the World Health Organization, Ulaanbaatar is among the five cities with the worst air pollution in the world, mainly due to heavy industry and the use of coal for household cooking and heating.

But Mongolia’s government is increasingly leaving the battle against air pollution to NGOs and individuals, the workshop heard. At the start of next year, the government will shut down the country’s Clean Air Fund, which supports projects to combat pollution, due to budget cuts.

At the workshop, software developer Dulguun Battulga presented a prototype smartphone app that uses data from the OpenAQ platform to create a global map of all the places about which air pollution information can be obtained.

By incorporating user-friendly graphs and hosting a discussion forum, the public and scientists could exchange real-time information about pollution and take action, OpenAQ’s supporters hope.

“Scientists and policymakers around the world can exchange solutions to similar air pollution problems,” says Nasanjargal Naranbat, the renewable energy project manager at the Ulaanbaatar Air Quality Agency.

He told the audience that the Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Hohhot have the same air quality levels as Ulaanbaatar, and that initiatives to reduce pollution in these cities could be copied in Mongolia.