Digital billboards bring real-time air pollution data to Nairobi

Digital billboards in Nairobi are mining pollution data, in an initiative meant to check and increase air quality awareness among the city’s 4.7 million inhabitants.

The digital billboards started to live stream Nairobi’s real-time air pollution through a collaborative effort with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, Safaricom, Alpha and Jam Ltd and Metropolitan Star Lite Ltd, Out Of Home (OOH) media.

The data has some of the most harmful type of air pollution, fine airborne particles, known as PM2.5. The pilot aims to engage the public by streaming real-time air pollution information to digital billboards at four critical locations in the city: Moi Avenue, University Way, Mbagathi Way and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

PM2.5 causes serious health issues, including asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease. Exposure to PM2.5 has also been associated with low birth weight, increased acute respiratory infections, and stroke.

“Real-time air quality monitoring will help us with the issuance of health advisories as well as for formulation of smart traffic controls that minimize congestion,” said Lawrence Mwangi, Assistant Director of Environment in charge of pollution control at the Nairobi County Government.

“Dynamic advisories demonstrated through this collaboration will help people limit their exposure to harmful pollutants.”

Around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal.

More than half of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under five are caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.  Outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause three million premature deaths worldwide in 2012 with 88 percent of those premature deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of urban outdoor air pollution.  Most residents of the city do not have access to real-time air quality data and consequently, are often unaware of the harmful levels of air they breathe.

“Action on air pollution, which is responsible for millions of premature deaths a year, is critical – efforts should focus on high-risk communities, such as people living in informal urban settlements,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

“Through our partnership with UNEP, we are able to leverage real-time air quality monitoring data, machine learning and data visualization to help identify those that are most affected by global air pollution. The real-time visibility of the impact of air pollution on mankind, combined with the outreach and support that the UNEP offers, can help governments and communities around the world take actions that lead to cleaner, healthier air,” said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes.

The Nairobi air quality awareness demonstration project is the result of a unique collaboration between the UN, the private sector, academia, non-governmental and local governmental organizations and is expected to accelerate efforts to change how transport, waste management and other services are managed in cities so that air pollution from these activities is significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

“This partnership lies very much at the heart of our sustainability agenda that seeks to address environmental issues such as air pollution which remains a major challenge especially in urban centres. We intend to use our digital platforms and expansive network infrastructure to support the air quality monitoring project to expand across more urban areas in Kenya. We will also foster partnerships with other stakeholders including regulators, relevant ministries and private organizations to help build a compressive and sustainable air quality monitoring system in the long run”, said Peter Ndegwa, CEO, Safaricom.

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