view of dandelion seeds floating in the air, symbolizing how MAKAIA and TechSoup are collaborating with other nonprofits and libraries to use open data to advocate for cleaner air

How Nonprofits and Libraries Can Use Open Data to Lead to Cleaner Air

If you walk into a library in Medellín, Colombia, tomorrow, you might notice a strange sensor mounted above the doorway. You might also see a local teenager checking to make sure it's properly connected to a laptop over a wireless connection.

If this is the case, the high-tech scene you've stumbled upon is likely part of a citizen-powered air quality improvement project made possible by Colombian civil society organization MAKAIA. It's partnered with the Medellín Data Strategy Council, IBM, Ruta N, Alcaldía de Medellín, and the Public Good App House (produced by Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup).

Their project promotes both open data and a clean environment around the world. The cylindrical white tube above the doorway is actually an Internet of Things air sensor made by PurpleAir with the ability to monitor and openly share local air quality data.

The project aims to give citizens accurate, real-time information about the air they breathe and teach technical skills to local communities. It also provides the scientific community with current and incredibly detailed environmental data. And it directly addresses U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.6, to "Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable" by, among other things, paying close attention to "air quality, municipal, and other waste management."

Air Quality: A Social Justice Concern

Air pollution severely impacts the quality of life of millions across the globe and disproportionately affects low-income populations. What's worse, evidence has shown that some governments don't make an effort to share negative data with their citizens, leaving many exposed to risk factors they don't know about.

"As data becomes an increasingly important part of how communities understand themselves, it's important that young people know how data is produced and how to access that data and use it to be able to express themselves," said Catalina Escobar. Catalina is MAKAIA's co-founder and chief strategy officer. "This project gives them an opportunity to learn those skills while working on a very important issue: air quality in Medellín."

Promoting Sustainability Through Technical Education

The goals of this project (PDF) are to

  • Use sensors to measure air quality in local communities so real-time data is available — and make citizens key to the installation, operation, and maintenance of those sensors
  • Equip citizens with skills to extract the data, and perform data analysis and data visualizations
  • Provide support for community anchor institutions — local organizations like libraries and schools — to make this information accessible to an increasing number of communities around the world

As a result, citizens gain ownership of environmental data that empowers them to advocate for environmental policy improvement. It also gives community anchor institutions authentic opportunities for meaningful engagement with cutting-edge technology, while providing a backdrop for community members to improve their own technical skills.

Finally, the project will provide new and in some cases never-before-available datasets from which to base new research studies in the area of air quality improvement. Some of this data will ultimately be passed on to studies pertaining to the U.N.'s SDGs.

"Access to clean air is a basic human right, and without proper data, overly polluted areas of the world will remain as such," explained Marnie Webb. Marnie is chief community impact officer at TechSoup and CEO for Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup. "This project will empower communities to use the Internet of Things and open-data technology to build a more sustainable and equitable environment in Medellín, and eventually, other regions where air quality is a serious issue."

Across Borders, a Pursuit for Cleaner Air

illustration of a laptop screen showing a dial measuring air quality, with a tree on the cleanest end of the spectrum and a gas mask on the dirtiest name of the spectrum, representing how NGOs and libraries can use open data to research air quality

This program is seen as a pilot with the potential to be replicated throughout the world. MAKAIA, which is part of the TechSoup Global Network, has over 11 years of experience working with ICTs in Colombia, promoting community engagement through technology. MAKAIA has thus far organized all the necessary training activities needed to build citizens' capacity for setting up and collecting data from each air quality device.

In turn, TechSoup has the potential to leverage its 30-year strong global network of libraries and community centers, and will oversee the project's expansion across the globe. Its newest division, Caravan Studios, also provides a layer of technological expertise that will aid in the adoption and proliferation of the project.

As the Medellín pilot continues to yield successful outcomes, MAKAIA plans to work with the larger TechSoup Global Network to expand this to other countries and regions. "We would love to see an air quality sensor in every library in the world," said Catalina.

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Additional Resources: Caravan Studios, MAKAIA, and the TechSoup Global Network