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Smokey, your friendly air quality chatbot

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-09-2017 Nitin Sreedhar

When you ping Smokey on Facebook Messenger, it takes a moment for it to come online. It is, after all, a chatbot. But when it does wake up, it gives you real-time data on the air quality where you happen to be, or anywhere in the world.

Pick any city and it will tell you if the air quality there is moderate or unhealthy in real time. Apart from setting alerts for regular updates on air quality, you can also learn about harmful elements in the air. If you want protection from these pollutants, then it will tell you about the options that are available online—indoor plants, air purifiers and face masks.

Amrit Sharma, 30, a New Delhi-based social entrepreneur and Smokey’s founder, explains how the chatbot functions, compiling air quality data from as many as 48 countries. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What was the idea behind Smokey—when was it conceptualized? Do you have a team working on it?

A couple of years ago, I moved to New Delhi from Minneapolis and quickly realized that I could no longer take clean air for granted. I had been fortunate to live in Kathmandu and Minneapolis for most of my life and never had to think about air pollution. I believe that clean air is a basic human right, and had taken it for granted. But in New Delhi I realized that air pollution is a global health crisis which leads to 6.5 million premature deaths every year—including 1.6 million deaths in India alone. The World Health Organization calls air pollution a “greater threat than Ebola and HIV”.

I was surprised that finding and understanding air quality data is much more cumbersome than weather data. That’s when I decided to launch AirAirAir.org and set out to answer two simple questions with Smokey: “How bad is the air quality around me right now?” and “what can I do about it?” The focus from Day 1 was to present the air quality data in plain English that anyone could understand.

Smokey has been live on Facebook Messenger for over a year now and around seven months on Twitter. We’re a small team—just Smokey and me! I do occasionally outsource work to freelance developers, designers and data scientists.

Smokey brings you real-time air quality data from 48 countries, with more countries being added every month.

How does Smokey compile real-time air quality data for different cities?

Smokey only uses official government air quality data sources from around the world. In India that’s the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) and the US embassy diplomatic posts. There’s data from 43 cities or towns in India. However, Smokey doesn’t aggregate that data itself. I rely on a Washington, DC-based organization called OpenAQ that is working exclusively on aggregating the world’s air quality data sources in one place. Besides OpenAQ, eventually Smokey will incorporate data from the many low-cost air quality sensors that people have in their homes and offices because the accuracy and reliability of that data is getting better every year.

How many countries does Smokey cover? What are the pollutants that it can provide data on?

Smokey brings you real-time air quality data from 48 countries, with more countries being added every month. Most of Smokey’s users live in India, Nepal, France, Germany, the UK, Chile and the US.

Smokey tracks all the primary air pollutants: PM2.5, PM10, NO2, SO2, CO and ozone. For example, if you want to find the air quality of Jaipur on Twitter with Smokey, you simply have to send a tweet “#airairair Jaipur”. In the next few seconds, Smokey will grab real-time air quality data from the monitoring stations across Jaipur, then reply to your tweet with a beautifully designed air quality report in simple English, with the exact pollutant values and health advisories through emojis.

What is the margin of error?

The data that Smokey presents comes from the official government sources from these countries.

Some chatbots respond only to specific instructions and questions. Are you working on making Smokey more user-interactive and conversational?

It is tempting to focus on making a “cooler chatbot” with Artificial Intelligence and more natural language comprehension, but I believe that would be a distraction. My priority is to help people tackle air pollution with simple solutions to important questions in a manner that encourages them to learn more.

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