We live in a age of technology, with enormous amounts of data being created and collected all around us. But, are we putting all of it to good use? Gorjan, a 25 year old software engineer, uses open data and a mobile app to lead a 3000 strong community of eco-activists in his home country of Macedonia, with the goal of saving 2.000.000 of his fellow citizens from a horrific air pollution problem.
When I was 15, back in my hometown of Skopje in Macedonia, during our cold, groggy winters, I was not allowed to keep any windows or doors in my house open. It wasn’t because we were afraid to let the heat out, but because we didn’t want the so-called ‘smelly fog’ to come in. It was a weird phenomenon, but my parents said that it’s always been like that, it will go away in spring, so don’t think too much about it. And I didn’t, until 4 years ago, when a pile of seemingly unimportant data, would change my life and transform my country.
Now the key word there was DATA. In this day and age of technology, we create and collect data at an enormous pace. IBM estimates that daily we create around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, that’s roughly 40 million copies of Wikipedia. Some of this data is available publicly online or offline, in open data sets. In the Netherlands, there are almost 13 thousand of these sets available from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, ranging from environment and nature data, to economy, healthcare and administration. That’s a lot of data, but the question is, are we putting it to good use?
Being a 21 year old bored college student in Macedonia, I was fiddling around with developing Android apps at the time. Forced to stay indoors because of the “smelly fog”, I stumbled upon a little government website that featured local open data sets. “Awesome, something to use for a new project” - I thought! Going through this data, I found an interesting title: ‘Air Pollution Dataset’. Being the geek that I am, I quickly wrote a little algorithm to analyze the data, but there was a persistent bug in it I couldn't fix. It kept giving me wrong numbers: air pollution x20 over the EU limit, x4 over Beijing?? Impossible, unrealistic, BUT…. it was true. My country was suffocating at the hands of an invisible enemy. The smelly fog? That was smog. But why was no one talking about this? It’s public data, where are the news stories, where are the people on social media, where are the protesters on the streets?! Silence.
What I learned that day, was very logical, but very powerful. The data was there, and it was telling a horrific story. But because it was presented to the public in a complex and incomprehensible format, for the average user it was not adding any value. On the contrary, it was being overlooked. I couldn't stand by and watch that happen. I took it upon myself to find the right way of presenting this data to my fellow citizens, a way that will not only inform them, but also empower them to act! My answer to the problem was MojVozduh - MyAir.
A web and mobile app where I took this data and display it in a very friendly and understandable format. Basic numbers, explained with visualisation such as progress bars, graphs and calendars. An app that simply transformed the presentation of already existing data.
The response was amazing. One month after publishing MojVozduh, more than 1 million people had accessed this data, either via the 2 mobile apps, the web app or by simply watching the news which finally started to report on the matter. People were shocked, skeptical, some even blamed me that I was lying! The then minister of ecology even went on TV to give a statement on how no one should trust my app, and that it was the Americans and Soros paying me to do this. In response, I made a counter statement, giving him a suggestion: Let’s both sit down at a table and compare the data from my app and your government website. If the data differs, I shut down MojVozduh. If it’s the same, you resign. Guess who was never heard from again? I guess they could have gone down the standard road of trying to lock me up on some false charges, but the information was already out there, on the government’s OWN servers, so getting rid of me as a threat would not stop what was about to come.
The next winter, people were outraged by the government’s ignorance towards the problem. We took to the streets and blocked the 5 biggest cities in Macedonia with protests. Even the politicians themselves started waving around screenshots of the app in parliament, demanding that something should be done. Because this was not a political issue, it was not a racial, nor gender issue. This was something that concerned every single one of us. What united us, was that we all were breathing the same air, and there is no escape from it. Even scientists from Sweden came and conducted studies on the air pollution and its effects. They came up with this number. 3000 yearly premature deaths, attributed to air pollution. 3000 of my fellow citizens, 3000 of my friends, 3000 of my family.
Macedonia may be far in the east of Europe, and our problem may be far greater, but the Netherlands is not out of the woods either. Just last year, the courts ruled that the Dutch state must come up with a plan for getting cleaner air and if nothing is done, it’ll take until 2030 before pollution levels in the Netherlands are down to set goals by the EU. Until then, the European Environmental Agency estimates that more than 11k people will prematurely die each year, due to air pollution from the industry, road transport and households.
But it’s not all that dark. By having open data sets like the one I used in Macedonia, we are able, as citizens, to do our own independent analysis of the available information. We can draw conclusions, spread awareness and lobby for changes, because with technology on our side, we are now more than ever, empowered to act!
Don’t even let the sky be the limit on what you can do with data! I already jumped that barrier, and am now working together with the European Space Agency to analyze air pollution data gathered by satellites orbiting the earth, in hopes of pinpointing pollution sources that ground sensors can’t pick up! We have already found that a medical trash incinerator given to Macedonia as a “donation” by the UK, is one of the top pollutants of my home town, and if set to work in the EU, would be illegal because of the high emission levels.
And if me as a single person can do all of this, imagine what an highly intelligent, and I must say gorgeous looking audience like you can do! Go online, find interesting data, play with it and see what you come up with. Some amazing secrets hide within those numbers, and you only need time and perseverance to uncover them!
As for me? Next time I’m in Macedonia, I’ll be back on the streets, shoulder to shoulder with 3000 of my fellow activists, trying to win the war against an invisible enemy. There is progress, but we still have a long way to go, before we can literally breathe at ease, and data is the pathway that will take us there.