AirAware Bucharest: air pollution monitoring with free software (AirAware)

Published on: 21/08/2009

In 2005 the Romanian National Meteorological Administration (NMA) received EU funding for its AirAware project. The project's objective was to improve the air quality monitoring system currently in place and to enhance the system with forecasting capabilities. For the management of all the information and the presentation thereof, the team at the NMA developed a portal that is entirely built on Free/Libre Open Source Software. In the future, the team is hoping to open the project to the public. 

Policy Context

Around the year 2004 a team of researchers and meteorologists at the Romanian National Meteorological Administration (NMA) first saw the necessity to establish a monitoring system that would capture the air quality of Bucharest and the region. Much like in any other large city, air quality can become a problematic issue, which ultimately even could cause health problems. Especially in peak heating seasons and during the summer, larger cities have to find solutions to ensure healthy air quality and to limit pollutions to established compulsory and advisory critical levels.

The task of monitoring air quality has been traditionally carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency Bucharest (EPA-B), but there were clear limitations with regard to the technology and the knowledge at hand. The NMA thus applied for funding within the EU's LIFE framework to set up an improved monitoring system, that would give more detailed information about the air quality, and that also would dispose of forecasting capabilities. The funding was then granted as part of the European Union's LIFE framework programme. The budget for the project was set at roughly €1 000 000 over three years (2005-2008) duration, with funding provided on a more or less equal terms by the Romanian government and the EU . The project funding ended at the end of 2008, but given the fact that the hardware was in place and given the absence of proprietary annual license fees the maintenance cost the AirAware team now faces are seen to be moderate and manageable.

After obtaining the initial funding, the project started in 2005. The initial equipment was bought and plans were implemented. As more and more equipment was purchased the team had to realize that the actual costs for equipment by far exceeded the initially forecasted costs. This development led to the need of cost reductions for other positions, most notably the software solution to be implemented. One way to reduce the cost for software solutions is to use open source software instead of proprietary ones. This helped in keeping the costs to a minimum, while offering functionality, security, and modularity.

Description of target users and groups

The air quality monitoring platform receives data from about 40 partners, which come from the private sector and the public sector alike.
The six main users of the platform are:
- The Urban and Metropolitan Planning Centre of Bucharest (UMPC-B)
- The Environmental Protection Agency Bucharest (EPA-B)
- The Public Health Authority of Bucharest (APH-B)
- METEO France
- The Institute of Biology - Bucharest
- The National Meteorological Administration (NMA)

At these institutions the software is used for a variety of purposes, such as the development of weather forecasting models, or the planning of urban spaces.

In the future the AirAware team is hoping to open the project to the public, as a simplified version, which will further extend the group of users.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

Before the AirAware project, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Bucharest was in charge of monitoring the air quality. The technology at hand however only allowed for the monitoring of street levels, which is not enough to give accurate information about higher spheres and it does not suffice to make usable forecasts. So before National Meteorological Administration took the task they started acquiring new equipment, and made surveys to find out about the major sources of pollution. Accordingly, "the main source of pollution [in the past years] has shifted from heavy industries, which are the legacy of the Communist times, to traffic", explains Vasile Craciunescu, technical manager of AirAware. The number of cars has increased dramatically, making it the biggest pollution problem in Bucharest. After finding out about the sources of pollution the NMA set up the monitoring system in 2006, which is fairly advanced, even compared to the European standard. With the new system, which was fully functional in early 2008, the NMA was able to give detailed information about higher levels of pollution (above the street level), which is very important in indicating the pollution of a greater area. The other important innovation was the ability to forecast, which was previously impossible. Although forecasting is not considered a guideline for the city administration, as this is the case in France for example, it is important for many of the partner institution, and may be important for the city planners in the future.

Technology solution

For end users the system does not appear as a complex network of data streams and numbers, but is presented neatly on a website using graphical interfaces that comprise all the information acquired in the above flow chart. This can be accessed either via the web or desktop client. For the building and the administration of the website, only open source software was used, which helped in keeping development and maintenance cost at a very economic level, while offering at the same time modularity, security, and supplier independence. To just name some solutions that have been applied, the content management system (CMS) is based on Textpattern , which is freely available under GPL license. The same is true for the relational database management system MySQL and the scripting languages used: PHP, Python, and Java. The web server Apache, with the Apache Tomcat running as the servlet container for Java code to run.

For the management of the geospatial data, the system relies on PostgreSQL and the extension PostGIS as geospatial enabled data base storage. The server is Geoserver, which is a Java based standard geospatial server, that serves that data to the partner's thick (desktop) and thin (web-based) clients.
However, not all of the projects outcomes will be freely available. The 'pollution forecasting model' for example, is very complex and mathematical and intricate to produce. The NMA is working together closely with Meteo France, which is one of few institution capable of providing such models. As opposed to common software solutions, the forecasting models are only produced on demand and customized uniquely for a respective institution. Since such a production involves Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) that belongs to Meteo France, a sharing of these models is consequently not possible.

Technology choice: Mainly (or only) open standards, Open source software

Main results, benefits and impacts

For most users of the system, the improvements compared to the previous system are evident. As the information is much more detailed and allows making forecasts, the work of all participants has been improved.
Exemplary one may look at the case of the Urban and Metropolitan Planning Centre Bucharest:
In the six month of use since early 2009 of the AirAware system the Urban and Metropolitan Planning Centre Bucharest has benefited greatly from the software, as it facilitates many planning processes. As the system gives a very detailed image of the urban area of Bucharest, the city planners can make dynamic maps, which have improved substantially compared to the previous system. Gheorghe further explains: "Right now we are using the information from the system to develop a general urban plan" and AirAware shows them "which are the areas most exposed to pollution". This, in turn gives them clues were greener spaces have to be build, or where the traffic situation has to change.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

For the development of the AirAware platform, the developers have only used open source software. Although the initial plan foresaw the use of proprietary software, this was a great success for the project.
The team is currently having talks about the publication of the platform as open source software on the Forge. It is therefore foreseeable that the solution will be freely available in the near future.

Lessons learnt

The system has been a great success and compared to the previous system, AirAware has brought many advantages. The monitoring is much more accurate and it is possible to analyse the air of many more levels than before. With regard to the portal, the Open Source solution is still considered as the right path to go: the system performance meets the requirements, while being very secure, modular, and cost efficient. The mapping technology for example allows employing maps of various mapping applications of the web; be it OpenStreetMap, Yahoo Maps, or even the popular Google Maps. Especially when the system will be public, this is seen to be of great help for any user.
For most partners, the benefits are equally felt in their daily work, as the improvements to the system also facilitated their work.
The biggest challenge the AirAware team is facing is the allocation of data from some partners. Since the information on a company's or and institution's pollution levels can sometimes be an unpleasant surprise, it may occur that the data is not provided to the AirAware servers. As there is no legal framework that obliges them to do so, is can be very tiring for the AirAware team to receive the information.

Scope: Local (city or municipality), Regional (sub-national)