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Volunteers prepare to run with wearable sensors to capture local air quality information in Accra, Ghana. Credit: UrbanBetter

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Blog 14 May 2024

How wearable sensors can catalyse grassroots advocacy on air pollution

Olivia Sweeney
Wearable sensors equip grassroots organisations with data on their local air pollution to campaign on their own terms. From supporting community-driven initiatives to advancing air quality monitoring and evidence-informed advocacy, we highlight learning for philanthropic funders.
What are wearable sensors? 

Wearable air quality sensors (wearables) monitor air quality by measuring levels of pollutants in the air. An example is particulate matter in the air, which harms human health and the environment. Wearables are small devices that can travel with you, meaning they can produce information on how an individual’s exposure changes throughout their day and the resulting health impacts. Wearable sensors tend to measure particulate matter (PM 1 and PM 2.5) better than they do gaseous pollutants (NO2).

Why wearables for clean air? 

You can’t improve what you don’t know. And, around the world, we know surprisingly little about the air we breathe. We know that 99% of the world’s population are breathing dirty air. But, at a local level, we mostly don’t know the makeup of our dirty.  

This lack of air quality monitoring is a barrier to improving air quality. There are lots of reasons for this problem, such as the expense and maintenance of installing reference grade monitors. But wearable sensors are significantly cheaper, making them more accessible to governments, communities, and individuals. Although not as accurate as reference grade sensors, wearables are valuable for data gathering and closing the huge data gaps on air pollution. Wearable sensors are also versatile: they can be used dynamic monitoring and static monitoring.  

Air quality is an issue of environmental justice at a local and a global scale. The most vulnerable and often minoritised communities, who contribute least to the problem, are exposed to the dirtiest air and suffer most from the negative health and climate impacts. Again, this is where wearable sensors come in. The cheaper price makes sensors accessible to a greater diversity of people. They also expose the inequities in exposure to air pollution that the most marginalised communities experience. These communities can use wearable sensors to understand the air they breathe and turn this knowledge into advocacy for change on their terms.  

Air quality monitoring is often highly technical, poorly communicated and limited to academic or specialist audiences. But wearables can bring the problem of air pollution to life by telling human-led stories of personal exposure. They are smaller and more portable than other sensors, so communities and campaigners can gather data reflective of lived experience, telling the stories that are most relevant to them – and help legitimise their perspective on the issue of air quality. 

Air pollution intersects with many other environmental and social issues, from climate change to social injustice and poor health. So, stories of exposure to dirty air can be an effective route to driving change towards goals as varied as safer streets, eliminating open burning, increasing walking and cycling, or more vibrant public spaces. Although mainly used for traffic emissions monitoring, wearables can be used in many ways and offer new opportunities for impact in other settings.

Supporting community action with wearables 

Clean Air Fund is supporting a programme of community-driven initiatives to advance air quality monitoring and equip social movements with evidence for local advocacy. Here are three examples:

1. Wearable sensor manufacturing and data sharing

HabitatMap is a not-for-profit wearable sensor manufacturer and data provider with a strong commitment to open data and community-driven action. Unlike other wearable sensor manufacturers that operate for profit, HabitatMap offers a fully open source and more affordable solution.  

The data generated is freely available on an open-source environmental data visualisation platform. All profits are reinvested into the tech’s development. The organisation also supports users to understand and effectively utilise the data. Over 3 billion AirBeam air quality measurements have been recorded, with more than 30,000 AirCasting app downloads and over 10,000 AirBeams sold worldwide to various organisations. Evidence of the health impacts of air pollution have advanced as a result of more research on personal exposure using HabitatMap’s technologies. Dozens of academic research projects have examined and quantified exposures to particle pollution using the AirBeam. Find out more about HabitatMap.

2. Data-driven grassroots campaigning

UrbanBetter’s Cityzens for Clean Air (C4CA) is a youth-led campaign for clean air and physical activity to support evidence-informed advocacy for healthy and climate-resilient public spaces in African cities. Runners were equipped with wearable sensors as they went on runs around Cape Town, Accra and Lagos to capture information about air quality and environmental features that make it easy or more difficult to run. The campaign garnered high levels of media interest in Africa. This information was used to design advocacy tools and tactics by young people across Africa in November during COP27.  

UrbanBetter is now establishing hubs of engaged citizen scientists to foster connection with local government to develop participatory youth-centred interventions in rapidly growing cities. Find out more about UrbanBetter.

3. International networks nurturing local change

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) is a global network including everyone from community organisers to frontline waste pickers to policymakers. GAIA unites and supports local environmental justice efforts around the world to end waste pollution, stop false solutions and implement regenerative Zero Waste solutions. It aims to strengthen grassroots social movements, local communities and waste workers that advance real solutions to waste and pollution, respecting ecological limits and community rights. 

Our learning from grantmaking to these organisations 

People are excited about working with wearable sensors 

Observing the uptake and impact of campaigns using wearable sensors, we at Clean Air Fund posted an open call for projects exploring innovative applications of wearable air quality sensors for storytelling, community engagement and campaigning. We received over 60 applications from 15 different countries. Applications focused on a variety of different issues from a diversity of organisations, including for-profit manufacturers, international campaigners, academic researchers and local grassroots organisations.  

In today’s political climate it is rare that an environmental issues garner interest and support from such a cross section of stakeholders. This speaks to the unique and engaging role that wearable sensors play in wider change. As a grant maker, we must listen to this excitement, seeing how projects that catalyse this interest can help meet our mission and aims. When grant making to these organisations, it is important that funders act as facilitators, so community organisations’ interest is not tampered by administrative burden.  

Funders must share power 

Funders hold power over their grantees and have the choice to exploit or share this power. If funders truly believe in the positive reasons for using wearable sensors, they must play an active role in empowering the communities they support through their actions. Providing funding is not the only step.  

As a global north-based funder, we can’t rely on wearable sensors alone to ensure community empowerment. We must interrogate our own systems and the power dynamics between funder and grantee, as well as other stakeholders in community’s context. Wearable sensors can only truly address the inequitable burden of air pollution when coupled with changes to behaviours and actions, at individual, organisation and institutional level, that foster deep equity. 

Philanthropies uniquely placed to catalyse collective innovation  

These projects are often local and community-driven, utilising a relatively new technology and applications. But philanthropies can play a catalytic role in bring together diverse stakeholders to learn from and challenge each other, while identifying scalable solutions.

Philanthropy is uniquely placed to fund new approaches to tackling air pollution. Given the highly politicised landscape of air pollution in many parts of the world, philanthropy can act consistently and independently of current political agendas. Funders can often take more risks, innovate and act dynamically and agilely. More philanthropic funders need to support the development and use of wearable sensors, through community led projects across the globe.  

See more

Wearable air sensors enable communities to advocate for clean air

Collecting and visualising data on air pollution is an essential first step for clean air campaigns. HabitatMap has revolutionised air quality data collection through their low-cost, wearable sensors. Campaigners worldwide use these sensors to advocate for environmental justice.

Young runners use wearable tech to capture air quality data in African cities

Cityzens4CleanAir tapped into the transformative power of young citizens and decentralised data to campaign for smarter urban design in Cape Town, Lagos and Accra. Citizen scientists used running and low cost wearable air quality sensors to generate evidence for decision makers.