Create Your Own Data: A Case of Trying to Breathe

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Enterprising investigative journalists are pioneering tech-driven fields for the media, including the use of environmental sensors. Photo: Madelene Cronjé

In 2015, Govindraj Ethiraj, the founder of non-profit organization IndiaSpend, was hit by a surprise news bulletin. “We always thought that Beijing was the most polluted city in the world,” he said, speaking at the “Drones, Sensors and Satellites” panel at the 10th Global Investigative Journalism Conference. “Then I suddenly found out that Delhi had overtaken Beijing. That got me thinking.”

After some investigation, Ethiraj and his team found that public information on pollution was woefully inadequate. It did not have any real-time air quality monitoring data, and even the offline data was not being properly monitored and collated. “The only data point at that time was from devices placed on top of the US embassy,” he said.

IndiaSpend worked with volunteer students from the Indian Institute of Technology to develop a low-cost air sensor that emitted real time data via the mobile data service General Packet Radio Service. Together with a funder, they developed a network of some 150 air sensors around the country, hosted by members of the public.

“The idea was, if we are able to distribute devices and start collecting data, then hopefully we will be able to create more media pressure and public interest in this issue,” said Ethiraj. “At that time, it was not high enough, or maybe not there at all.”

And it worked. In December of 2015, the Delhi government introduced a system aimed at reducing pollution. Efforts included regulations that required operators of motor vehicles with even-numbered license plates to drive on alternate days to those with odd-numbered plates.

“After 15 days, the government said, ‘Look! It’s a success, the air is clear!’” said IndiaSpend editor, Samar Halarnkar, speaking at the sidelines of #GIJC17.

“Our sensors were up and running. We ran the data and found that the air quality was actually worse. It was due to atmospheric factors such as wind speed and humidity, but regardless: what the government was saying was a lie,” Halarnkar said.

IndiaSpend published its findings, and so did news outlets across the country. “At first the government said, ‘This is nonsense! These people are funded by the opposition.’ There were television debates about it,” said Halarnkar. The government eventually conceded. “The Pollution Control Committee contacted us and asked us to join them [to work on] how better to improve the pollution warning system.”

The devices cost about $200 each, and are hosted by enthusiasts willing to foot the small cost of added electricity use. Within about 45 minutes of being plugged in, an air sensor is linked and operating as part of the database. They’re also simple to make. “It’s something that a third-year computer science student can build,” said Ethiraj.

But there are limits to this economical tech. “The advantage is that it’s plug and play. The disadvantage is that these air sensors need to be replaced every 18 to 24 months,” said Halarnkar. As a result, the network has dwindled from a peak of 150 to a current roughly 50 devices. And the quality of information is not as high as from more sophisticated machines.

Nevertheless, the organization has established itself as an authority on air quality in India. It distributes information to almost 400 wire services, newspapers and television stations daily. The Hindustan Times, one of the largest newspapers in the country, uses its data to run an “air pollution watch.”

IndiaSpend has now partnered with Twitter to provide real-time air quality information to users all over India. Simply tweet #breathe followed by your location, and you’ll receive a real-time reading of the current air quality according to your closest air sensor.

And knowledge about the subject has undoubtedly increased. “We started this in November 2015 and by the middle of 2016 the overall public awareness of this issue of air quality went up dramatically,” said Ethiraj.

“In some ways we are limited by what we do, but in other ways we are happy with what we do, because we are achieving advocacy and public interest,” he said. “All of this is stuff the government should be doing but does not. This is where we are filling the gap.”

Thalia Holmes is a South African freelance journalist specializing in business, health and long-form feature writing. She has won various national awards for her work. Previously she worked at the Mail & Guardian as a business reporter, and was a management consultant in a former life before finding her passion in media.

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