It was a normal day back in 2016, when my colleagues – the co-founders of Airly - were getting ready for an annual marathon. On a training run, they were having some breathing problems. Krakow had heavy air pollution at that time, and the smog was so intense that it was almost impossible to breathe without coughing. It made them wonder: “how could we measure air quality making it easier to know when and where it was ‘safe’ to go outside? Could we provide the data for decision makers and maybe even improve the quality of life?” When they made it to the finish line, they knew a longer run was in front of us.
Our first steps
We realized that we should use our knowledge of physics to build a sensor device that would measure air quality accurately in real-time. We could create a platform of air quality measurements - consisting of online maps, a mobile app, air quality forecast algorythms and an analytical panel - for air quality data
that can run in virtually any place with access to electricity. If we set up the sensors with cloud, the online map would be available for everyone through desktop computer and mobile apps.
Thus, Airly was born.
Its first execution in Poland was successful – and something the country needed. Despite it’s significant pollution problem, there was a lack of real-time hyperlocal data from Polish cities and towns. Solutions like Airly helped people to put air quality monitors near pollution hotspots.
Accurate and hyper-local information about the air we breathe in a particular area is the first step towards understanding the health hazards, locating the sources of air pollution and, eventually, taking the right steps towards changing the situation, which in this case means to reduce the source of contamination.
We experienced a snowball effect: as the first municipalities and private people started to install our sensors, others approached us that they wanted their own sensors. Local media often quoted Airly data as a source for their news about air pollution. The social impact of our solution was big.
Almost 4,000 sensors now deliver data about air pollution in Poland alone, but for us it was only the beginning. Four years later, we have installed air quality sensors in 35 countries across four continents, including the USA, Indonesia and South Africa.
Our work with UNDP
Air pollution in Belarus is not as big a problem as in some European countries. Domestic heating there is based on cheap gas, which is affordable for most citizens. Since houses are not usually heated with poor-quality coal or garbage, a powerful source of smog, the air quality is usually good. But it’s hard to tell exactly because measurement options are limited.
As professionals working for years on improving the air quality, we were ready for a new challenge: A country with a better air quality than others, where the results won't be easy to reach and measure.
Last year, we met Vidalink during a trade fair in Europe. Based in Minsk, they provide solutions indoor air quality monitoring, and when they heard about the Polish Challenge Fund, they reached out to us for a partnership. The Fund engages Polish companies to address complex development challenges in ways that are sustainable, suitable to the local context, and scalable and replicable within a country.
A few months later, after becoming challenge grantees, we conducted the first training for our air quality sensors in the Vidalink offices and installed the first Airly sensor outside their window.
Today, in Minsk alone, our network of air quality sensors already includes 17 devices. Local clean air activists in VidaLink’s network managed to quickly and efficiently distribute and install the devices in other large cities in Belarus. Half a year after launching our first sensors in Belarus, we are working with Vidalink on notifying users about the possible health threats caused by air pollution. We want to demonstrate the risks for the six body systems – respiratory, mental, cardiovascular, sensory, neuro and immune – as well as virus activity level, COVID-19 being mainly a disease of the respiratory system – to decrease the susceptibility and vulnerability of people who are exposed to air pollution.
Airly pilots air quality monitoring and forecasting solutions, both for tracking and identifying the sources of air pollution, and also for gathering information for data-based decision making processes to improve the air quality.
This is part of a series of articles on air pollution in Europe and Central Asia. Around the region, UNDP is working to tackle the problem of air pollution, from getting a sense of its breadth to finding the causes behind it to informing policy and encouraging greener development - so that everyone can breath cleaner air.