Making the invisible visible: Building a network of mobile air pollution sensors for Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar on October 8, 2018, with pollution haze visible. The worst pollution, though, is what you don’t see.

One of my main interests in Mongolia has been the air pollution, and I’ve been talking to different people about the problem and their solutions for it. I had a chance to tour Froit VanderHarst’s energy efficient house last winter. Insulation and energy efficiency would go a long way to decreasing Ulaanbaatar’s deadly air pollution problem, which is mainly caused by how people heat their homes in the frigid winters here: burning raw coal and other materials in stoves in uninsulated gers (yurts) and houses. (Here’s more information on the air pollution problem, with links to even further information.) With proper insulation, air proofing, electricity, and passive solar, people could get rid of their coal-burning stoves entirely, as Froit has.

I also learned about the newly formed organization Breathe Mongolia, a group of experts and activists who are working on Mongolia’s air pollution problem. Last spring, I put a call out on their Facebook page to talk to people who are working on or knowledgeable about the situation here, and Gary Svenson was one of the first to respond. He offered to meet with me to discuss the sensor he and a group in South Africa had been developing to help monitor air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. In a private message, he commended me for my “boldness in reaching out,” saying that it was “a very scarce trait here.” In our two-hour conversation at a coffee shop in the Peace Mall, I learned what he meant by that. Our far-ranging conversation revolved around air pollution as a social and political problem, and why it’s been nearly impossible to solve in Mongolia, also touching on Mongolian leadership styles, corruption, and the political interests of NGOs.

When I met with Gary, he was living in Ulaanbaatar, but only for one more day. He’s married to Tsolmon Buyantsogt, a Mongolian in the construction industry. Originally from South Africa, he worked as an engineer in a nuclear power station there before he came to Mongolia to work for a mining company as an engineer and then a supervisor. His engineering background informs his practical approach to things, even things as sticky as Mongolia’s air pollution problem. From a technical perspective, he says, “You figure out what’s the problem and fix it. That’s it.” The technology has been around for several years, but the problem is still there because it’s not a technical problem; it’s social and political. This is why there’s a need for non-technical people to be involved, he says. His conversation is direct, animated, and clearly articulated, and he has a lot to say based on his experiences in Mongolia. What I’d anticipated would be an hour-long conversation easily stretched to over two hours, all the more remarkable because he was leaving for the United Arab Emirates the next day to take a new job at a nuclear power plant.

His motivation for doing something about the air pollution, and his wife’s as well, is their young child. Having a baby in UB (or in my case a preteen) makes you really pay attention to the air pollution, especially if you’re aware of the health effects children. As Gary says, “I’m an engineer. My wife is in the construction industry. But we can’t fix the air for our kid. People work on our wallets, not on our health. That’s selfish.” So the couple decided to do something. They don’t want their child to go through more winters with terrible air quality.

Their solution to the problem was to initiate a local start-up to address the lack of air quality monitoring in Ulaanbaatar. The city only has eleven pollution sensors in fixed locations, so the ability to monitor the pollution is very limited. What Gary envisions is a network of mobile sensors gathering data on air quality, and software to aggregate, analyze, and model it. This would allow people to see where the worst air pollution is, and when, so that they could avoid it and protect themselves from it, at least at first. It would also lay the groundwork for solving the problem long-term, giving organizations the information they need to understand where the worst air quality is and what conditions affect it.

What he proposes is dividing the city into grids and rating the grids according to the air quality. People and businesses in a grid block would be responsible for the air quality there; they would “take ownership of the air quality in their communities.”  Through the network of sensors, “grid owners” would have the knowledge they need to improve the air quality. They could also plan better where to put kindergartens, schools, medical clinics, and hospitals, and other facilities that should have the cleanest air. As he pointed out, a lot of kindergartens are on the ground floors of buildings, close to the street, where the pollution is the worst: “They should be at least on the third floor or higher.”

Individuals would certainly benefit from the information he wants to provide; when possible, they could plan their days to take advantage of the fluctuations in air quality and better control their indoor air. But ultimately, it would be a social good, as city officials and planners, NGOs, companies, and other interested organizations would have the information they need to focus their anti-pollution efforts. The social impact would be huge: “Our kids would be healthier.”

To meet this vision, Gary and a team he has assembled in South Africa have developed and built a consumer-level air quality sensor that can collect 24 sets of data every three seconds. The prototype detects the main pollutants that most affect air quality here (NO2, SO2, CO, PM1, PM2.5, PM10, O3, CO2, TVOC) and also provides air pressure, temperature, humidity, GPS location, time, and altitude for each reading.

A prototype of the device

The goal is 3-D mapping of air quality conditions in the city to understand changes in air quality and ultimately predict “air quality hot spots.” All of this comes in a relatively small package that cost less than $500 to build, with an SD card slot, WiFi and SIM card communications; the information could be shared via WhatsApp, Messenger, and other social apps, through the user interface on an individual’s smart phone or mobile device. Keeping the device’s cost low would enable consumers to either buy their own or rent one with a maintenance package. Their closest competition is a monitoring device developed in Hong Kong that costs around $5,000. The device that Gary showed me cost around $300 to make.

One of the problems for these types of sensors is the very cold winter temperatures (to -40° C), which could affect sensor readings. Gary and his team are looking for a laboratory to understand sensor readings under various local conditions and use this to support remote calibration. This would enable the sensors to continue providing useful data despite fluctuating conditions. They have also carried out computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis to determine the effects of temperature and the sensor location inside the device’s casing, and added intake air flow rate control along with heat supply to the incoming air to ensure the air is within the sensors’ operating range. The result of this is a consumer-level device that would work in a Mongolian winter.

Their other main need is software development. Getting the readings is the easy part. Having the software to analyze them and make them usable to consumers is more challenging. Gary’s wife Tsolmon has wanted to keep the development of the product local, using Mongolian materials and experts. However, they have found that “there is no one serious enough to do it,” especially the software development. So far, he and his team have been working out of pocket, but they have been looking for funding for the software development. He went on Shark Tank, but lost to “a woman who was crying about no YouTube videos for kids.”

Gary has also tried to get NGOs and international organizations interested in the device. However, he hasn’t found much interest in this type of data in Mongolia yet. “It is not seen as valuable enough for air quality institutional support or development investment. He presented the prototype to UNICEF, which has become involved in addressing air pollution in Mongolia. When UNICEF announced that it was making $2 million available for air pollution related projects, Gary applied, but the organization wasn’t interested. “We were pushed out. When we called, the phone was hung up.”

His argument that this type of monitoring and modelling is valuable and necessary for addressing the air pollution problem efficiently is compelling. Without detailed information about where air quality is most compromised and what conditions affect it, it’s hard to see how solutions will be effective. People often react, “We know where the pollution is. We can see it. We can feel it.” But most of the really bad stuff in the air, especially particulate pollution, is invisible. Gary and his team want to make the invisible visible so that people can understand it better and know how to target their efforts.

This is why the air quality problem is ultimately not technical but social. It’s political. As he points out, the government, NGOs, and international organizations have little accountability to the people. There are many organizations involved in addressing air quality in Mongolia, but they have little motivation to actually solve the problem because they benefit from it. Each organization has its own niche, its own area of influence, but there is little coordination between them to hold the government accountable. “The civil society side is not pushing hard enough for politicians to understand that they work for the people.” Until they do, there is not a lot of hope for progress.

Gary’s envisioned network of sensors approaches air pollution from a different angle than Froit VanderHarst’s energy efficient house. Gary wants to provide people and organizations with the information they need to respond to existing conditions, with the aim of improving them, while Froit provides a model for housing that would reduce the pollution coming from the main source: home heating in the city’s ger districts. What is interesting about these two men is that they have put their personal knowledge, expertise, and resources to work to come up with solutions that have been missing from organizational efforts so far. Their approaches are practical and direct. Getting organizations to see the value of these solutions and implement them is the real challenge. Especially since, as both men have pointed out, many of these organizations have a vested interest in the air pollution continuing to be a problem.

In an update, Gary let me know that there’s been progress over the summer. His group will be getting their website up in a couple of weeks (I’ll post a link when it’s live). They will have their production version ready to demonstrate by the end of next week, and they have also contacted Breathe Mongolia to partner up for managing the network of sensors as a pilot project in Mongolia. Hopefully they will gain some traction for the project, since pollution season will be starting again soon.

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