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June 5, 2019

How Skopje, North Macedonia is using innovative tech to clean up air pollution

By ITU News

A thick and heavy cloud of pollution has fallen over Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Residents call it “the smelly fog.”

“I cannot open the windows in my house. I cannot find a place to get clean air,” says local resident, Elena. That is because Skopje, according to its health authorities, is among the most polluted cities in Europe.

Despite emergency measures, pollutant levels hover between four and five times above the European Union’s recommended air quality standard, according to government statements. Industrial emissions, smoke from wood-burning stoves in homes and exhaust fumes from old cars have been blamed for this extraordinarily high level of pollution.

And Skopje’s problem is a global one. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, 9 out of 10 people on Earth breathe polluted air. This poses a significant risk to people’s health, and is responsible for approximately seven million deaths a year, according to WHO.

But Skopje’s tech developers and its policy-makers have found a number of innovative solutions. The tech developers created a mobile phone application to map pollution using open source data, relying on sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), which allows citizens to avoid heavily polluted areas. And the government is implementing radically innovative policies — including using drones to identify and sanction polluters as necessary.

Skopje, according to health authorities, is among the most polluted cities in Europe. ©ITU/I.Wood

These are the types of local tech solutions to local problems that experts say will be key to accelerating progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And this year for World Environment Day, the UN is highlighting the need to beat air pollution.

“If you can empower local people to innovate based on local knowledge, that is a really powerful way of driving forward the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Sam Greene, a researcher at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Mapping the problem with your phone

In 2014, Gorjan Jovanovski, a local tech developer, created an app to inform, educate and empower citizens against air pollution. Known as the MojVozduh or “MyAir App”, the mobile phone application creates an easy-to-use, near real-time visualization of air pollution around Skopje by aggregating environmental data from up to 100 sensors throughout the city, including 18 government-run measuring centres and independent sensors owned and operated by volunteers, universities and local municipalities.

Citizens can use the app to avoid heavily polluted areas.

“The map shows pollution levels via a traffic light system: red for heavily polluted; amber for high levels detected; green for safe levels,” explains Igor Noveski, an environmental activist and MojVozduh volunteer.

“MyAir App” empowers city dwellers with real-time information about air pollution levels. ©ITU/I.Wood

“This is raising awareness about air pollution. It’s also putting pressure on the government and the authorities to deal with air pollution,” says Noveski. “The app enables users to email local authorities to raise awareness regarding pollution.”

The pollution data from both the government and volunteer sensors is open-source; the information is automatically pulled to the app at fixed integrals every hour via public APIs which enable computers to access the information directly.

Today, the app is used by over 100 000 people — close to 5 percent of the North Macedonian population.

IoT sensors in action

SkopjePulse, a crowdsourcing platform, provides some of this environmental data to the MojVozduh app. It is an Internet of Things (IoT) platform that monitors environmental data through a LoRaWAN sensor installation, a network that enables low-powered devices to communicate at great distances.

It was designed and developed by the founders to provide a credible data source for tackling Skopje’s environmental issues and act as an early warning system for citizens by providing up-to-the-minute data on pollution levels in the city.

“The sensor is turned on every 15 minutes and it takes the measurement in. It takes it in 10 seconds or 15 seconds at most and then it transmits [the data] through LoRWAN to our servers,” says Aleksandar Nikov, co-founder of SkopjePulse.

IoT sensors are monitoring deadly air pollution throughout the city, sharing info with policy-makers and the public. ©ITU/I.Wood

Nikov hopes to expand the project in the future to include up to 1,000 devices and make the platform available for any city throughout the world.

An innovative government response

North Macedonian authorities have taken emergency measures when air pollution reaches high levels, such as making public transport free, excusing pregnant women and people over 60 years old from work, cancelling public events and pausing the construction of buildings. But this has had a limited impact on the city’s rising levels of pollution.

Consequently, the government has launched a radical solution to combat the rising levels of pollution.

“We will use drones to have clear data in the video about the polluters,” says Jani Makraduli, Deputy Minister and Minister for Environment and Physical Planning.

The drones will be equipped with thermal imaging cameras to find and identify industrial companies conducting illegal waste management — burning banned pollutants or operating at night, for example — and bring them to justice.

“[We will have] a clear argument to go against them according to the law and to punish them with some sanctions,” Makraduli says.

Additionally, the information will make industrial companies accountable to the public.

“We will have a map of companies with the appropriate license, visible, transparent to everybody, so that will increase the [public] pressure on them to follow the rules and to be a good company,” he says.

The project is part of a wider technology-enabled strategy which also includes using meteorological and pollution data to create a mathematical model to predict pollution levels up to three days in advance, which the government hopes will help achieve the ‘plan for clean air’, an initiative to reduce pollution by 30-50 percent.

“If we fulfill our plan, we can fulfill also requirements for climate change. That is: to decrease the [green-house gas] emissions, to increase energy efficiency and increase the use of renewables next year,” Makraduli says.

The entrepreneurial and government solutions are examples of how local players can work to create “innovation ecosystems” that help drive progress on important social and environmental goals embedded in the SDGs.

“Through localised innovation ecosystems, the different stakeholders are not only final users of technologies, but they become co-creators; they undergo a ‘learning by innovating’ process that will have many local benefits and increase sustainability,” says Emanuele Giovannetti, Professor of Economics Anglia Ruskin University. “This does not mean having to reinvent the wheel by recreating already existing technologies developed elsewhere, this means using existing best practices and available technologies, to develop and adapt new technological solutions to problems that have local features.”

For more insight from Prof. Giovannetti – and to learn more about this topic – read ITU’s publication on ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation.

Learn how ITU works to help countries build their own ICT-centric innovation ecosystems on ITU’s Innovation Platform.

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How Skopje, North Macedonia is using innovative tech to clean up air pollution

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