Ulaanbaatar Mongolia air pollution
Air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, can make it look as if the city is constantly covered by fog or smoke. A lack of local air quality data made it difficult to quantify health effects or gain political traction to improve the city's air quality. Credit: Einar Fredriksen, CC BY-SA 2.0

A chance encounter with a photograph sparked a new international air quality data resource, the latest recipient of a Thriving Earth Exchange grant from the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Christa Hasenkopf, a recent Ph.D., worked as an atmospheric research scientist in Boulder, Colo. She and her husband, Joe Flasher, an astrophysicist and software developer, knew that they wanted to work internationally after Hasenkopf graduated.

They didn’t know exactly what form their work would take, but social relevance was important to both of them. Hasenkopf had worked with Teach for America in Baltimore, Md., and Flasher was interested in applying his expertise in open data and technology to solve global problems.

Despite the obviously severe pollution, residents and decision makers had virtually no local data on air quality.

One day, Hasenkopf was speaking with a researcher colleague who had recently spent time in Mongolia when the colleague shared a photo showing the view from his hotel window in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. The air pollution was so severe that it was clearly visible in the photo.

Neither Hasenkopf nor Flasher had expertise in air pollution specifically, although Hasenkopf had some relevant knowledge from studying particulate matter on Saturn’s moon Titan. The photo cinched the location for their planned international move—it inspired the couple to move to Ulaanbaatar and learn more.

They quickly realized that despite the obviously severe pollution, residents and decision makers had virtually no local data on air quality. They did, however, have the evidence of their own observations. Living in highly polluted areas can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, but without data, it would be difficult to document the devastating health effects of Mongolia’s pollution or to get traction to make things better.

Winning the Sharing Solutions grant “is a huge opportunity to scale up our platform, get more data, and share it out.”

Drawing on Hasenkopf’s atmospheric science knowledge and Flasher’s software development skills, the couple collaborated with the local science community to build Mongolia’s first social media–based air quality data-sharing platform. It wasn’t long before the platform elevated the conversation about air pollution in Mongolia. National news outlets covered the project, and the team was invited to present research to the Mongolian Parliament, the U.S. Embassy, and the Canadian Embassy.

The couple, empowered by the success of that first project, decided to expand their focus from Mongolia to the entire developing world. According to the World Health Organization, poor air quality is responsible for one in eight deaths around the world, and 90% of those deaths occur in developing countries. Yet the developing world, where the problem is most acute, is exactly where data are scarcest. To address this gap, the team created OpenAQ, the world’s first free, open, real-time, international air quality data hub.

Most polluted cities often have least air quality data.
Some of the world’s most polluted cities are also those with the least air quality data and research. (PM10 refers to particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter.) Credit: Hasenkopf et al. [2016], CC BY 4.0

OpenAQ was recently awarded a $15,000 Sharing Solutions grant from AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange and Amazon Web Services, which allows the team to use Amazon’s cloud-computing services to store and share data and code. Winning the award “is a huge opportunity to scale up our platform, get more data, and share it out,” said Hasenkopf.

Many developing countries and localities do collect air quality data, but typically, they are not archived, standardized, or aggregated. The OpenAQ platform is designed to harvest and bring together real-time data from the thousands of official, publicly available data sources around the world, both large and small. The data are then captured and archived to make them available for research.

The strength of the OpenAQ platform lies in its open access model and its open source code. The data are freely available for any scientist, journalist, educator, or policy maker to access, and any software developer can create apps that use these data.

In addition to providing a platform for data sharing, OpenAQ also hosts workshops and creates tools to guide users. The ultimate goal of all this is to inspire scientists, activists, and engineers to create data visualizations, analytics, and software that can be used to influence government policy in order protect public health. OpenAQ tracks such projects on its blog so involved researchers, developers, and community members can learn from each other. Hasenkopf is confident that OpenAQ could also add value to international projects like the World Health Organization’s Outdoor Air Pollution Database and the Global Burden of Disease study.

Chart showing location and frequency of access to OpenAQ.
This chart from 15 February 2016 shows the location and frequency of access to OpenAQ’s aggregated data. Credit: OpenAQ
This chart from 15 February 2016 shows the location and frequency of access to OpenAQ’s aggregated data. Credit: OpenAQ

“Our main goal, in addition to aggregating this data, is to get people involved in the platform as much as they want to be,” said Hasenkopf. “There is always an open invitation for people to reach out to us.”

“This is a community effort with some fantastic, wonderful folks, from the U.S. to Spain to Rwanda to Mongolia, who have been essential to the platform,” she added.

To date, the data aggregated by OpenAQ have been accessed from 674 cities in 88 countries. The team hopes that the platform will provide a sustainable, community-driven environment for concerned individuals to come together, use data, and find solutions for some of today’s most pressing environmental health issues.

—Kathleen Pierce, Freelance Science Communicator/Contributing Writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange; email: kathpierce@gmail.com


Hasenkopf, C. A., D. P. Veghte, G. P. Schill, S. Lodoysamba, M. A. Freedman, and M. A. Tolbert (2016), Ice nucleation, shape, and composition of aerosol particles in one of the most polluted cities in the world: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Atmos. Environ., 139, 222–229.


Pierce, K. (2016), Closing the air quality data gap in the developing world, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO055557. Published on 11 July 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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