Spotlight: Ronak Sutaria

Ronak Sutaria has a Master of Science degree in Computer Science from NJIT, USA and a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Computer Engineering from University of Mumbai, India. He worked in the Silicon Valley for ~5 years, and then joined Mindtree Research Labs and led their Internet of Things (IoT) research.

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In 2015 and 2016, he led a sensor journalism project called #Breathe at IndiaSpend focused on air quality in India, and in 2017, he founded urbansciencesIN, formally registered as Respirer Living Sciences Pvt. Ltd. in Mumbai, India.

Ronak has worked in the research and development of IoT technologies involving Big Data platforms, Data Science and Machine Learning algorithms and low-cost Wireless Sensor Network based solutions. He has an active interest in citizen science projects and the use of open data and technology for governance, economics and democracy-focused initiatives.

Ronak is on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also visit his website.

A short Q &A with Ronak:

What motivated you to work with low-cost sensors? 

I am primarily interested in working on citizen science initiatives which empower people with real-time data. The purpose of doing this is to enable citizens & communities to have a more informed dialogue with a view towards improving the urban quality of living. I got exposed to the underlying technologies that are involved in this back in 2004 when I took graduate level courses related to wireless sensor networks. Subsequently, I used to attend weekend talks on citizen science organized by some groups from Intel-Berkeley R&D. In a sense, the genesis of my interest in this field stemmed from some of the courses I took & the talks I attended in San Francisco & Berkeley (USA).

How was the experience working on the IndiaSpend #Breathe project? What were the challenges and successes?

I had built the first version of the air quality monitors around mid-2010. I had pitched a crude version of the prototype to Suzlon (who used to run p.a.l.s – a ‘pure air lovers society’. Subsequently, I pitched the idea to a few other clean tech companies). In December 2014, I met the founder of the Data Journalism initiative IndiaSpend & we ended up discussing this idea. I found the initial backing which I needed in IndiaSpend. Over the next one year, I started working on taking the one unit I had built to scale to upto 15 units. By the time we launched the IndiaSpend #Breathe project – we had managed to build about 50 units.

While there was a lot of excitement in the technology and the project we were building, the key concern & challenge I had when we were launching the project was that I felt that adequate evaluation & validation of the data had not been done. I had reached out to a few domain experts but we had not got any real dialogue or engagement going with any of them.

They key success of the project was the wide dissemination & traction we received from the journalism and other community-based organizations for this project. The wide adoption of this project was a clear indicator that the need for real-time data which helps improve the quality of living is immense.

How do you see sensor data playing a role in the air quality narrative in India?

Real-time sensor monitors when managed & operated by local citizen & community based organizations can lead to a more sustained engagement of people in the understanding of the air quality challenges facing our country. A quick anecdotal example is as follows: There is a community based environmental monitoring group in Chennai which has installed 10 Atmos monitors in different parts of the city. The core group actively manages the monitors using a device dashboard & tracks the data from those monitors on daily basis. After several months, when one of the locations started reporting very high levels, the core group immediately contacted the remote site to find out why the levels had started staying so high as compared to other sites. The remote group was very pleasantly surprised that someone was keeping a track of their air quality conditions and responded back by saying “Didi (sister), we thought you had forgotten us after installing the monitors !”. The remote monitored site then went on to explain some local event which over the past few days had led to the increased levels of pollution in that area.

Providing real-time sensor based monitoring can help bring communities closer and help each other better in fighting for cleaner air quality for the region.

Can you tell us about Atmos? What is the goal of the project and how do you see it fit within the air quality landscape in India?

The Atmos monitors are being designed with a view to build a scientifically validated & calibrated monitoring solution. One of the focus areas of the Atmos monitors is to have a more in-depth understanding of how the sensors perform over longer periods of time, how to calibrate them in real-time in the field and finally to preemptively detect sensor failure about a week or so in advance just before they are starting to fail. The eventual goal of the Atmos network is to have more scientific rigour in the research & development of the low-cost monitors being deployed in India.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on getting a better understanding of how to calibrate these low-cost air quality sensors. Besides the PM2.5 sensor based devices, I am also exploring how toxic gas sensor based monitoring can be implemented at scale. I am also a part of a team which has been funded by IUSSTF for building a low-powered (6LoWPAN/LoRa/NB-IoT) based wireless network for nationwide air quality monitoring (details ). [Read about early results from the sensor project here.]

Besides the air quality monitoring, I am also working on building policy research tools for greater transparency in our urban governance frameworks.

What is your message to others looking to start work with air pollution sensors?

For those starting to work with air pollution sensors, specifically those coming from a technical background, I would encourage them to get a strong understanding of how the sensors are performing in the field. Doing as many field studies as possible is immensely helpful. Having a thorough knowledge of the sensor electronics as well as the sensor calibration techniques is very valuable.

Besides getting the basics of the sensors right, it is also valuable to interact with a cross-section of stakeholders and to understand what are the requirements of each of those groups of people. In a sense, the age-old maxim holds true here too “Begin with the end in mind“. It is important to have some clarity on the kind of intervention that one is trying to make, especially those who are trying to build their own initiatives or ventures in this space.

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