Amrit Sharma is an entrepreneur reluctantly based in New Delhi. He’d much rather be in an airport lounge heading onto his next adventure. You can find him working on AirAirAir.org and the Smokey air quality chatbot out of coffee shops, co-working locations and pretty much anywhere with a good WiFi signal.
Here is a short Q&A with Amrit:
What got you interested in air pollution?
I’ve had the luxury of being oblivious about air pollution for most of my life. It was only a couple years ago in 2015, when I moved from Minneapolis to New Delhi, that I realized that air pollution is a serious public health issue. I went from taking clean air from granted to complaining about air pollution every single day. Literally everyday. It sucked! The transition couldn’t have been any more drastic – PM2.5 values in Minneapolis are almost always in the single digits, whereas Delhi’s smog was so thick that I couldn’t the buildings two doors down from me. I remember feeling like a character in the movie, “The Fog”, where monsters would leap out of the fog and attack people. It’s a pretty good analogy for air pollution in Delhi. When I realized that nearly 7 million people die prematurely every year in the world because of air pollution, I was shocked and decided to start digging into the topic.
Tell us all about Smokey. Where does he live, and how can we talk to him?
Smokey is the world’s friendly air quality chatbot. Smokey makes accessing and understanding real-time air quality data as easy as checking weather data. I built it because of how challenging it was to get a simple answer to straightforward questions like “What’s the air pollution in my city right now?” and “What should I do about it?” I knew that air pollution isn’t isolated to Delhi or India alone, so the vision for Smokey broadened to “democratize the world’s real-time air quality data.”
Today Smokey lives on Facebook Messenger and Twitter, and is powered by data from OpenAQ. On Facebook Messenger, you can quickly get an air quality report for any city or neighborhood. And, today several thousands people also get a daily alert every morning in Facebook Messenger from Smokey with the air quality level in their own city.
Yes, we hear Smokey speaks English, Hindi and Nepali. Is he learning other Indian languages too?
Absolutely! Smokey’s on fire. It’s already up to 20 languages and counting. But here’s why! I believe that clean air is a basic human right. I believe that it is a gross injustice that 92% of people on earth don’t have access to clean air. And even the 8% that have “clean air” are suffering because there is no safe level of air pollution. It would be a mistake to only build solutions in English. If Smokey is going to live up to it’s mission of democratizing air quality data, then it must speak your language. Not only will that help people understand air quality information better, but also make more people interested in air quality issues. Every new language that I teach Smokey potentially unlocks a new community that wouldn’t otherwise have talked about air pollution. The languages that Smokey already knows are English, Hindi, Nepali, Spanish, Mongolian, Hebrew, Punjabi, Malayalam, Dutch, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, German, French, Russian, Korean, Turkish, and Klingon. You can get all the latest languages over at http://airairair.org/smokey. For example: If you want air quality in Hindi for Delhi, send a “Delhi @SmokeyHindi” and if you want it in Spanish instead simply change it to “Delhi @SmokeySpanish”. That’s it. Within seconds, Smokey will reply to you with a real-time air quality report for that city in the language of your choosing, along with practical health advisories.
From a tech perspective, how do you think programmers and data scientists can contribute to our fight for better air quality?
Absolutely. I believe that programmers and data scientists are best equipped to educate the world about air pollution today. Because one of the challenges today is the lack of air pollution information in plain english. There’s a chasm between the air quality research community and the rest of the world. I am very optimistic because technology can bridge that gap. We’ve seen that with initiatives like OpenAQ which enables programmers and data scientists to “translate” the data from μg/m3 and ppm into apps, narratives, visualizations and stories. The only limit is creativity. In 2017, the cost of bandwidth, storage and processing power is virtually zero. Except the opportunity cost of my time, it costs close to nothing to run Smokey. That makes me very optimistic about the coming few years for air pollution solutions. A 12 year old in Kampala, Uganda has the same access to worldwide air quality data from OpenAQ (for free) and use Amazon’s Web Services (free) to launch a website, an app or crunch numbers to find breakthroughs for literally no money, and possibly even without having to borrow her mom’s credit card. That’s going to usher in a flurry of innovation in this industry! Oh, and don’t get me started on the impact of low costs sensors. The next decade is going to be so fascinating!
In your work on air pollution, what has been your biggest learning, and what frustrates you the most? How has the response in the community been?
I’m having a great time building solutions to problems that I see in the world. I love the air quality community. Honestly, they’re some of the most interesting, thoughtful and cool bunch of people I’ve come across. Platforms like Twitter, Slack and Whatsapp have enabled a world with zero degrees of separation. I (and everyone else) can get in touch with anyone in the world. I love it when air quality professors, like Dr. Faye McNeill from Columbia University, talk to Smokey. It’s nice validation that what I’m building is on the right track. Most importantly, it’s deeply encouraging that neither I nor anyone else in the world needs anyone’s permission to get started in tackling air inequality today.
I know you don’t like to talk about the projects you haven’t launched yet. Can you give us a glimpse into one of them?
Sure. You know what really grinds my gears? Maps! Yes, maps! It’s so frustrating to see the utter lack of creativity in the vast majority of air quality maps today. There are two exceptions though – the AirVisual Map, which is a 3D globe that beautifully visualizes pollutant data along with wind patterns on a globe. The other is Disaster Watch, which beautifully presents different satellite datasets, including aerosols. I believe that data should be invisible. I am working on visualizing the world’s air quality data without presenting the data itself. Stay tuned to http://airairair.org/map for that. If I am successful at it, it will be the only air pollution map you’ll ever need. It will launch in the coming few weeks.
How can people get in touch with you?
Twitter is the best place to say hi to me. I’m at @amrit_sharma and love meeting people and discussing about all things air pollution.