Imagine using your bicycle to improve the health of your local community and help fight climate change. Using sensors strapped to their bicycles, citizens in Buenos Aires, Argentina were able to collect data about air pollution by riding around their city.

Citizen-created data empowers communities to tackle health and environmental issues such as fires, pollution and waste disposal. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) started the Accelerator Labs programme to harness the power of data and help these efforts.

“Governments are unfamiliar with the new sources of data available,” shared Gina Lucarelli, Team Leader at Accelerator Labs. She spoke at a webinar celebrating the launch of the labs’ report detailing 13 of its projects from its first year. Here are three examples in action.

Stopping Ukraine’s open fires 

In Ukraine, creating open agricultural fires to clear farm lands is an ingrained tradition. There are between 36,000 to 56,000 fires in open ecosystems burning across the country each year, according to UNDP statistics.

In 2019, the fires led to 84 deaths and US$120.6 million in losses. Fires also spread to the Chernobyl zone, leading some to worry about the spread of harmful radioactivity, reported the UNDP.

The Accelerator Labs used open satellite data and crowdsourced information to collect data about these open fires. They then laid out this data clearly on a digital platform, and shared it with local communities and grassroots groups, its website wrote.

With this data in hand, citizens in Ukraine got to work. They identified the types of crops that were commonly burned in different districts, so they could take preventive measures.

The data also led to citizens collating the locations of 367 composting sites, raising awareness about alternatives to burning.

Tackling air pollution in Argentina

Air pollution leads to an estimated seven million premature deaths worldwide every year, according to World Health Organisation data. Statistics also show that 90 per cent of people breathe air that exceeds the WHO guideline for pollution.

Conventional pollution sensors are set up in fixed-locations and cost US$50,000. These sensors often fail to capture the reality of air pollution for citizens who travel around the area in their day-to-day lives, wrote the UNDP.

Accelerator Labs created a workshop in Argentina teaching university students to make new, less expensive sensors costing just US$150. These sensors were then attached to bicycles, with volunteers riding around the city over a period of seven weeks.

Although the air pollution in Buenos Aires was at acceptable levels, the data was able to identify hotspots, such as busy traffic junctions, where air pollution was beyond these standards. This information was then shared with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

There are also plans to use further citizen participation to measure temperature levels in the city. This will inform the local government’s plans to create ‘climate corridors’, which allow for “cooler air from outside to penetrate into the more densely built areas”, explained Climate ADAPT. 

Mapping Tanzania’s waste management

Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest city, and it creates 357 tonnes of solid waste everyday according to the UNDP. The waste management infrastructure was struggling because informal settlements often had no clear waste disposal system.

The Accelerator Labs used satellite data to create an overview of waste management in a specific area. This district had a large number of informal settlements. Ten university students used street-level images of the area to identify key areas and possible waste disposal sites.

This effort mapped out 26,000 notable details such as roads, buildings and waste sites. It revealed the existence of new buildings that were not on the radar of the city’s sanitation authority. New waste collection points were then added to previously unknown areas.

Empowering citizen solutions

Governments around the world have begun using data in creative ways to solve climate problems. Data from satellites, mobile phones and social media will continue to help governments adapt, and they need to start collecting more of these, Lucarelli said.

There should also be “a shift away” from data being collected and analysed by experts who are far away from the issue, she added.

Agencies should start “feeding back” the citizen-collected intelligence, she noted. By giving these communities the data to help them, it enables “people to make change in their own communities”, she continued.

Using data that was created by citizens, for citizens, has led to solutions for existing national challenges. Technology allows citizens to become a resource that can be harnessed for greater problem solving.