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A Community-Driven Effort to Improve Our Air: Taiwan’s AirBox Sensors

PM2.5 is airborne particulate matter up to 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Breathing it in has a negative effect on our health. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

PM2.5 is airborne particulate matter up to 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Breathing it in has a negative effect on our health. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
 

EdiGreen’s AirBox, a device that uses microsensors to check air pollution levels, generating big data that is published online, has emerged from the Taiwanese public’s pursuit of better air quality. This world-­leading technology is providing Taiwan with rich data for analysis, attracting fact-­finding missions, and spurring cooperation with other nations.

 

More than simply a manufactured good, EdiGreen’s AirBox is the product of cooperation between academia, the maker community and government.

Large-scale data collection

The AirBox concept was originated by Chen Ling-jyh, a research fellow at Academia Sinica, and Hsu Wuulong (who goes by “Ha Ba”), the founder of an online community focused on location-aware sensing systems (LASS). The two first met sometime around 2015. Chen was already working with microsensors, and Hsu had just developed his first microsensing hardware. Since both were interested in the problem of air pollution, they decided to work together on an open-source air quality sensor.

“We worked well together.” Chen says that he and Hsu released the AirBox’s programming, as well as directions for how to make and install the hardware, on the LASS Facebook group. That, along with Hsu’s ability to create Facebook topics, encouraged a group of makers to build AirBoxes at their own expense. Some even traveled as far as the islands of Penghu to install them, in order to collect air quality data from as many parts of Taiwan as possible.

Even so, the community’s capabilities were limited. But then, just as the two men were struggling with a lack of data, Taipei added the AirBox to its Smart City project, attracting media and public attention. Edimax Technology, which was handling the AirBox’s system integration, subsequently decided to donate AirBoxes to Taiwan’s six special municipalities as a corporate social respons­ibil­ity project. With groups of private citizens also “adopting” AirBoxes, the number of air quality testing sites in Taiwan soared.

The government noted this exercise of civic strength. When it launched the Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program, it brought in Chen to help with the deployment of AirBoxes, which fell under the program’s green energy category. Chen then worked with the Ministry of Education to install AirBoxes on elementary school campuses all over Taiwan. This not only allowed the collection of large volumes of data, but also enabled teachers to adapt student activities to the current air quality.

From confusion to cooperation

However, environmental engineers began to express concerns that the community-designed AirBox had not yet been certified and its data might not be accurate. Visibly frustrated, Chen says: “We were doing something completely different from what environmental engineers were! But since everyone was looking at PM2.5 [airborne particulate matter up to 2.5 microns diameter], people naturally made comparisons.”

Chen explains that when environmental engineers sample the air using air testing stations, they average the data over periods of one hour or more, to smooth out fluctuations. In contrast, the AirBox’s microsensors look at values over five-minute periods, yielding snapshots that can be influenced by events such as a person smoking nearby, or a passing jogger kicking up dust. The two systems have different applications and different strengths that can complement one another when used together.

“At first, environmental engineers thought our devices were toys!” laughs Hsu. He says that many people think makers are just fooling around and trying things out, which creates the mistaken idea that their products ­aren’t well made. He goes on to say that AirBoxes are designed for different ends than air testing stations—they meet a public need by analyzing data from an information engineering and big data perspective, using the Internet of Things to acquire air quality information in real time. In contrast, air testing stations collect data on a broad variety of atmospheric indicators that are of less direct interest to the public. Hsu argues that these different missions are not antagonistic.

“An important AirBox function is identifying sources of pollution.” Chen explains that by observ­ing how readings change at different AirBox locations at different times, you can get a good idea which direction pollution is coming from. While the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) initially had concerns about the accuracy of AirBox data, it has since confirmed that the data are consistent and is using AirBoxes to track pollution sources and crack down on illegal factories.

Forging ties

As AirBox development has progressed, its community has strengthened. Local ­organizations have begun “adopting” the devices, and establishing local air quality monitoring groups on Facebook that share and discuss local air conditions in places such as Yilan, Taichung and Taoyuan. The LASS community has also seen an influx of new users, enabling people from academia, industry and the maker community to connect.

There are currently four major organizations producing maps showing PM2.5 distribution in Taiwan: the EPA, the LASS community, the g0v movement (an open source, open government collaboration), and EdiGreen. Chen says that there are also online maker groups and others applying multidisciplinary analysis to air data. For example, doctors are studying the relationship between PM2.5 and conditions such as asthma and sleep apnea, and geostatisticians are applying formulas to AirBox data to produce air quality estimates for the Central Mountain Range, which doesn’t have its own monitoring stations because there’s no good way to power them.

Open source

From the AirBox’s introduction as a maker product to its maturation into a commercial product exported to South Korea, Singapore and the United States, the key to its success has been its open-source ethos. Its creators made its software available online from the outset, allowing others to apply it directly or to adapt it to their particular needs, and laying the groundwork for the rise of community-­based air quality observation.

“When the AirBox first came out, many people asked us why we didn’t patent it. The truth is, this thing wasn’t hard to make; we just did it first. If we’d patented it, the AirBox would have become exclusively our system, and wouldn’t have continued to mature. By making the software public, we attracted other people onboard, enabling the system to grow.” Chen and Hsu believe that the important thing about the AirBox project is that it succeed, not that it make money.

“Taiwan’s LASS community is large and varied, including not just makers, but professionals from a variety of fields who spark each other’s ideas.” Chen avers that it is precisely the wide variety of organizations engaging in atmospheric sensing in Taiwan that has generated our abundance of domestic data and propelled Taiwan to the forefront of global atmospheric sensing research.