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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

Open-seneca team from Nairobi Makespace

'open-seneca' is a student-led initiative working to create a global, mobile, low-cost air pollution sensor network, driven by citizen science. PhD students Chris Franck and Lorena Gordillo from the project team take us through their journey from Cambridge to Kenya and Buenos Aires.

6 am, Nairobi, Kenya. It has been nine hours since the open-seneca team departed from Heathrow. We have not slept and have been breathing recirculated, kerosene-polluted air for too long. Outside the front of Kenyatta International Airport, we squash ourselves and the luggage into George’s 20-year-old Toyota Corolla Sedan. George is our driver for the week in the Kenyan capital and estimates the 15 km journey to our accommodation to be two and half hours. Before we can even compute how slow that is, we find ourselves stuck between pre-Cold War era heavy duty vehicles, commuters and old diesel-powered buses on one of Nairobi’s busiest highways.  

George is very interested in the small box we carry with us. The box is our latest open-seneca sensor that we have brought to Kenya to measure the air pollution levels in the capital. Only 15 minutes into our journey with George, we are experiencing the smell of the highest pollution levels we have ever seen. As we stop at a traffic light, still behind a diesel bus, the sensor shows values exceeding the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for mean particulate matter levels by a factor of 30. George is confused as we put facemasks on, but the smell of exhaust fumes is unbearable.  

We have just witnessed what WHO reports were stating for years. Developing countries have seen dramatic increases in air pollution, a result of growing activity from industry and individuals alike. In fact, approximately eight million deaths worldwide each year are attributed to ambient and household air pollution. 

The case for change

Developing countries like Kenya are often the least well equipped to deal with this problem, lacking the technology to monitor and prevent the main cause of respiratory disease. When one looks at the numbers of reference-level air monitoring stations around the globe, the map shows that these units, which can cost over £100,000 per device, are predominantly installed in developed countries. There are more stations situated in the Cambridge city centre, five in total, than in all of Kenya, which has just one.  

The result is a general lack of awareness about the negative health effects associated with air pollution amongst ordinary citizens like George, who are exposed to alarming particulate levels every day. 

This is the motivation behind the work of six students from the EPSRC CDT in Sensor Technologies for a Healthy and Sustainable Future, based here in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. We are working to develop a low-cost, mobile air pollution sensor network. The aim of the initiative is to empower citizens with air pollution data to raise awareness, initiate a behavioural change, and inform policy makers on environmental issues. 


From Cambridge to Kenya...

Our journey started a year ago with CamBike Sensor, where we designed a fully open-source, low-cost and easy-to-build device that could be mounted on bikes to collect air pollution data. That project received an extraordinarily positive response from residents and academics in Cambridge, resulting in 20 cycling volunteers gathering particulate matter data (PM2.5 and PM10) across the city. Having mobile sensors enabled a better spatial and temporal resolution of air pollution levels in a city and provided information about personal exposure.  

Dr Lara Allen, executive director of the Centre for Global Equality (CGE) and member of the Sensor CDT Advisory Board, heard about our project and saw its potential in helping countries with much more significant air pollution problems. The CGE works on evolving innovative solutions for global challenges, in particular in low- and middle-income countries. Dr Allen has worked extensively in international development and first proposed a co-creative air quality sensing project in collaboration with Nairobi Makerspace. From this, open-seneca was born. 

The Nairobi Makerspace hosts innovators, students, and researchers from engineering, computing, and arts subjects and are actively supported by academics from across the University of Nairobi. In December 2018, we were awarded £15,000 from the University’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), enabling us to set up an air quality sensor network in Nairobi and travel to the Kenyan capital. During our first trip in March of this year, we built collaborations and explored the local resources and infrastructure, so that we could develop an appropriate sensor design based on local components. We also presented the project at the fourth UN Environment Assembly. 

A second trip in May was all about co-creative developing, prototyping and building the final sensor design. We built a total of 18 mobile sensors and presented these at the first UN Habitat Assembly in Nairobi. Our Kenyan collaborators at the Makerspace have now taken ownership of the local hub and organised an educational workshop, teaching participants how to build sensors with open-source hardware and software, as well as how to interpret the air quality data collected. The sensors were then mounted on different locality-specific transport modes: three on Uber taxis, two on matatus (Nairobi’s minibuses), two on boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) and three on bicycles. The drivers and cyclists set off that afternoon and began mapping the air quality levels around Nairobi at different times of the day. 



…via Buenos Aires

While the preparations for Kenya were going at full speed, we were approached by the Canada-UK fellows, a group four of postdoctoral researchers from different backgrounds, who work together on a collaborative, impactful project of their choice for one year. 

We were jointly awarded the GCRF Rapid Response Impact Fund by the University, to establish a similar citizen science-based network in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Working in close collaboration with high-level policymakers and government officials, including the Argentinian Secretary for Environment and Sustainable Development and the Institute of Scientific and Technical Research for Defence, we agreed that deploying the sensors on bikes was the most appropriate way to monitor the air quality in various neighbourhoods of the fast-growing Argentinian capital. We ran educational workshops with two local universities, teaching students how to build the sensors.

After seven weeks of continuous monitoring, our 20 volunteers had gathered 300,000 data points, which corresponds to an impressive 3503 km of total cycling distance. From the collected data, we were able to identify hotspots of pollution within the city. We could also provide baseline values for the city of Buenos Aires that were comparable to the reference station situated in the US embassy, at a fraction of the cost. This information was passed onto the Argentinian government with the hope that the data will help to improve the infrastructure of the city and minimise the negative effects of air pollution on its citizens.

The core goals of open-seneca are to raise awareness about air quality, initiate a behavioural change, and transfer knowledge about how to build open-source sensor hardware for citizen science in low- and middle-income countries. This can only be done by following a co-creative approach with the communities to ensure that the sensor is globally compatible yet locally appropriate. We’re hoping to establish more networks across the world and encourage more citizens to play a role in shaping the policies and planning that can help clean up our air. 



This article was featured in our termly magazine, CEB Focus.

You can follow the progress of open-seneca on Twitter and Instagram @open_seneca and at 

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