The hackAIR project – an inspiring story
Air pollution- a modern problem
Air pollution constitutes one of the biggest issues currently faced by modern societies, with dire effects on the health of individuals worldwide. However, some population groups (e.g. people suffering from respiratory and/ or cardiovascular diseases) are more vulnerable to the environmental conditions than others. Despite the significant negative impacts on health that derive from the degradation of air quality, information about the levels of air pollution is still not very easily accessible by citizens.
An InSPIREring project
The hackAIR project, coordinated by DRAXIS Environmental S.A., aimed to empower vulnerable citizens to be involved in community air quality monitoring, to interpret the collected data and to protect their health from air pollution, enabling this way public participation. The initiative focused on London, one of the most polluted cities in Europe, where it is estimated that around 40.000 people die prematurely every year due to air pollution.
A school in Lambeth, south London, participated in the project by engaging children, teachers and parents in air quality monitoring. This particular institution was carefully selected as it constitutes a primary school, i.e. the students are young and therefore vulnerable to pollution. In addition, these children seemed to exhibit a good prior knowledge on pollution, due to a specific curriculum in the UK, and their participation in “The Eco-Warrior Club”; an afterschool club led by children and teachers who wish to learn about climate change and the environment. Moreover, the demographics of the area were taken into account, namely the other than “white British” ethnicity of the majority of Lambeth’s inhabitants. It is considered that air pollution in the area of Lambeth has been documented to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities.
Figure 1 and 2: Pollution at Sunnyhill Primary School in Lambeth
The pilot implementation of the project lasted for 3 months (October-December 2020), during which the participants were involved in data search, collection, preparation, analysis and visualisation, and finally knowledge creation regarding the subject of air quality. The citizen engagement and the pilot implementation were delivered with the support of Mapping for Change (MfC), an organisation in the UK, where they have a huge network of relevant stakeholders (e.g. schools, organisations that work across health and air quality, etc.) and strong experience in environmental citizen science
Figure 3: Mapping for Change website
Participants were able to measure outdoor air quality by possessing low-cost sensing devices, and access and visualise air quality data from heterogeneous sources (citizen-generated and publicly available open data) via the already available hackAIR platform (https://platform.hackair.eu/), developed by DRAXIS. It should also be noted that they received regular support to ensure that their devices were still in place and functioning properly. Parents were incentivized to look at their sensing device’s results via the hackAIR platform through the regular support provided by the Mapping for Change.
Despite some few difficulties in the implementation of the citizens science activities which originated from the COVID-19 pandemic and had to be overpassed during the pilot implementation phase (e.g. organisation of physical workshops), the results of the hackAIR project deployed in the school in Lambeth were overall positive. All the engagement was done online and reached a total of 15+ pupils and at least 9 parents.
Pupils showed an interest in understanding the specifics of air pollution and were keen to learn how to interpret graphical representations of pollution concentrations for pollutants such as PM10 and PM2.5. Pupils were ecstatic to use their own sensing device, and showed an interest in understanding how different levels of air pollution impact their health. For this reason, in the context of the project, they were provided with sensing devices, connected on the hackAIR platform, so that they check the air pollution levels in their school environment.
A successful ending
Overall, the project was quite successful.
Parents gained an understanding of the differing levels of pollution found at home by using individual sensing devices, and were inspired to take action at school level. In addition, the series of workshops that took place during the project enabled to answer parents’ queries in relation to air quality policies and regulations, particularly regarding what concentrations are considered harmful, by which institutions and for which demographics. Finally, the project enabled parents to create the basis of a parents’ network, whereby all are inspired to take action at the school level and more knowledgeable of individual and collective means existing to tackle air pollution.
As mentioned above the project facilitated the creation of a small network of parents keen on dedicating time to improving air quality at school. This has enabled teachers to identify these parents and contact them in the future to encourage their participation in future campaigns at the school level, as the anti-idling campaign proposed during the last event of the programme.
Regarding pupils, the project offered a sound background to the main aspects of air pollution. In terms of learning outcomes, they had the chance to explore what ‘air pollution’ means, the different types of gas and non-gas pollutants found in the atmosphere, how scientists currently monitor air pollution, and how low-cost sensing devices such as those used at this InSPIRES Open Call project can enable anyone to get an understanding of how polluted the air is. Children displayed a good understanding of the concepts and engaged quite well with the material provided, specifically when reading different graphs – which required a bit more effort.