Will an app a day keep air pollution away?

  • Snehal Rebello, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jan 17, 2016 00:37 IST
Even though this sudden growth could indicate an increase in awareness about air pollution and its impact on health, experts are cautious. (File photo)

Growing concerns over the air quality in metros such as Delhi and Mumbai have led to a surge in mobile apps that keep users updated on the latest pollution levels and health warnings.

In the past one year alone, at least five apps for iOS and Android platforms have been developed by a Pune-based research institute, a Paris-based start-up, a not-for-profit organisation, a personal assistant app and an air purifier firm for metros such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.

Even though this sudden growth could indicate an increase in awareness about air pollution and its impact on health, experts are cautious. According to them, there is a need for a standard operating procedure that ensures the data provided is standardised and regulated and therefore credible. For instance, based on their individual air quality index, one app may issue a health warning to patients sensitive to air pollution, while another app’s warning may not be as severe.

“Several start-ups will develop such apps, which should be encouraged. But the information they provide could be an overestimation or an underestimation, leading to confusion,” said Vivek Chattopadhyay, deputy coordinator, air pollution unit, Centre for Science and Environment. Delhi.

“The government must therefore lay down guidelines, where these companies should be registered with the central pollution control board to access data that will be common to all. There should also be a medical panel to standardise health warnings,” he said.

It was in February 2015 that India got its first air quality mobile app — SAFAR Air (SAFAR stands for System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research) — developed by scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune, in collaboration with the India Meteorology Department (IMD) — both under the Union ministry of earth sciences — at 10 locations each, for Delhi and Pune, followed by Mumbai in June.

In addition to location-specific air quality index (AQI) for the day, along with a three-day forecast, the app also issues health warnings based on pollution levels. At present, around 50,000 users have downloaded the SAFAR Air app that is accredited by US Environment Protection Agency.

While information provided by the SAFAR Air app is based on real time air quality monitoring stations, the developers of air quality apps such as Plume Air Report, Helpchat and BlueAir Friends said they source information on pollution levels from government authorities such as the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and scientific research networks to give out the Air Quality Index.

“An application can be developed by anyone. But its authenticity, quality and credibility is important as well a basic requirement,” said Gufran Beig, IITM scientist and SAFAR project director. “Today, there is a tremendous increase in awareness and discussions on air quality. But one needs to be careful in disseminating information so as to not mislead citizens.”

It was mid last year that Plume Labs, Paris, piloted the Plume Air Report app in Paris, which was later launched in the US and the UK. Even before the official launch of the app in India, Romain Lacombe, chief executive officer and founder Plume Labs, Paris, said around 10,000 Indians have downloaded it in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

“Air pollution is the leading cause of avoidable deaths worldwide,” said Lacombe said. “More than an environmental and health challenge, air pollution is an information issue. The more applications help consumers make sense of what they breathe, the better — and eventually individual empowerment will lead to collective action to clean the air we breathe.”

And while air purifier firm Blue Air launched its final version of the Blueair Friend on iOS and Android in December, Helpchat became the newest edition to the family of air quality apps early this month.

“Air pollution is one the biggest environmental issues, not just in India, but globally as well. Delhi and Mumbai are top two amongst the most polluted cities in India,” said Ankur Singla, founder and chief executive officer, Helpchat. “Our pollution meter is an initiative that alerts residents to the levels of their exposure to air pollution. This feature is a valuable resource for people susceptible to air pollution, as well as the elderly and children.”

“Helpchat collects data from CPCB and various other sources to bring granular level data like AQI at various locations and those to be avoided on daily basis. We use our own algorithm on top of the CPCB data to make it more user-friendly,” Singla said.

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