The environment in your hands: How the SaveEcoBot app helps you stop air pollution
Do you want to know if you breathing clean air when you go outside?
And have you ever wondered what you could do help improve Ukraine’s air quality?
Well, now there’s an answer — SaveEcoBot, a handy environmental application that lets you monitor not only air quality, but also the activities of companies that might be polluting the air.
SaveEcoBot’s co-creator Iryna Chernysh shares how the idea for the application came about.
When the Prydniprovska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) resumed operation after a period of staying idle, it was impossible to ignore the fact ¬– especially for Chernysh, who lives next door to the power station.
“(The TTP’s) smokestacks belched thick black smoke all the time, and my son was sick all the time. I had no doubt there was a connection,” Chernysh says.
Worried, she went looking for those responsible and those who were supposed to supervise the process.
“I was looking everywhere: I talked with deputies, I examined legislation, I studied the way the TPP operates, what equipment it uses, what it was supposed to do and why that had not been done,” she continues.
Right at that time, the power plant was trying to obtain a new emissions permit, having failed to observe the old one. Finally, after numerous round tables, discussions and meetings with officials, Chernysh realised that they could do nothing.
However, she was not going to give up and let things slide. Instead, she gathered together an initiative group.
“I told the group: Either we do something now, or for the next seven years the TPP will operate as it does now, except that we won’t be able to change anything.”
The group, which took on the name “Save Dnipro,” sprang into action. Ukraine had just introduced environmental impact assessments (EIAs), and Save Dnipro were the first group to use it in the case of the Prydniprovska TPP.
“We were told that it was all in vain, nobody was going to spend hundreds of millions of hryvnias on upgrades. But our unity made it happen,” the activist says.
Save Dnipro organised public hearings and did all they could to bring on board as many people as possible. As a result, the power station promised to implement environmental improvements at a cost of almost one billion hryvnias within the next three years.
It was a victory, but it was too soon to celebrate, according to Chernysh: “The company keeps trying to break the rules, and we keep watching so that it doesn’t happen.”
To fight for clean air in Dnipro, it was necessary to check the IEA register manually, and regularly.
That was when a group member, a professional programmer, came up an idea: “Why not create a bot that will automatically notify us when new documents are added to the register?”
The team supported and expanded the idea to include all environmental permits. They called their brainchild “SaveEcoBot,” and the first person invited to use it was the environment minister. It was presented in the press-centre of the Cabinet of Ministers as a tool that was easy to use and accessible for everyone — governmental officers, the city residents and businesses.
As an example, Chernysh gives gas company UkrGazVydobuvannya, which conduct hundreds of EIA procedures every day. The bot made it much easier to follow those procedures.
What amount of information on air pollution exists overall? As it turned out, not much.
“After all, we did suspect that it would be like that,” Chernysh says, “but we wanted to check why. And we realised that waiting for the state reforms might take forever, that is why we had to take the matters in our own hands.”
The SaveEcoBot team bought a device that measures the air quality and sends the data, via wi-fi, to an online map. It was tested in Dnipro to check that it was functional, and then the service expanded to other cities.
“We understood that easily accessible information about the air quality is a function that users of our bot had long been waiting for. Messages from it can be received either hourly, or when a threshold value is exceeded.”
Moreover, everyone can install a sensor where they are, and join in the public monitoring system. Why? To take care of our own health. Until now, Ukraine had no system to monitor the presence of particulates in the air. And that is no laughing matter.
“It is also known as “invisible killer”, because human eye cannot see this fine dust. The smaller the particulates are, the deeper they penetrate into the body and the more harm they cause. Our bodies take them for a virus and begin fighting against them,” Chernysh explains.
She stresses that monitoring the air pollution levels must be done: It’s far better to check what’s behind the window before going out for a breath of fresh air — because the air might be far from fresh.
With SaveEcoBot, Ukraine’s biggest aggregator of environmental data, now everyone can see if it is a good time for a walk.
The SaveEcoBot team has also made friends with colleagues from other countries and offered their solutions.
“They didn’t have anything like our bot. Neither had they any integrated pollution maps. So they were eagerly asking us to make SaveEcoBot international,” Chernysh says.
Bulgaria became the first international partner, followed by Georgia. Over the last year, the Ukrainian bot has been became adopted in five countries on two continents, and is now available in six languages.
SaveEcoBot provides much more than just notifications about the air quality. According to Iryna, after people receive notifications, they begin to get curious about why the air quality is so low. They demand changes from authorities at the local level, or get together to make those changes happen by themselves.
For example, quite a stir was caused by data about air pollution in the Transcarpathian area. “Both we ourselves and the local populations were surprised that the situation with the air is not much better than in Donetsk Oblast, although they do not have as many enterprises,” Chernysh says.
How did that happen? Through waste burning, which was something they always did, without realising how badly it pollutes the air. Now, with the relevant data, they understood that the burning must stop and an alternative solution must be found. They started discussions at the village council. Another vivid example is the autumn smog, which triggered active discussions in the mass media and social networks.
“People who received information from the bot started raising those issues in public and the topic became a top one in the country,” Chernysh recalls.
Eventually, even the environment minister admitted that the state system of air quality monitoring is obsolete, does not meet the requirements of the EU Association Agreement, and that something must be done about it. For decades, it had been neglected, but now society was providing the impetus. And now the 2020 budget foresees funds for development of the state monitoring system.
“Those hundreds of users who were active in social media and in their localities, communicating with their local authorities, they all exerted pressure. The authorities had no other option but take the responsibility and pass the respective decisions,” Chernysh says.
Similarly, SaveEcoBot triggered some public hearings. It automatically collects data from the EIA register and notifies users about progress in this or that procedure. It is possible to select a specific one to subscribe to. If you are concerned, say, about an air polluter in your district, you can actively make proposals or offer comments, for example, on the installation of filters.
To do that, the bot has a template approved by Environment Ministry, which can prompt you when it is necessary to submit your proposals. SaveEcoBot saves data on all procedures, so you are able to see the entire history of events, and join in at different stages. It is also possible to subscribe to an enterprise that does not yet have an EIA. The bot will let you know when it becomes available so you don’t miss the opportunity to take part in public discussions.
UNDP Ukraine in 2018–2019, with the financial support from Sweden, implemented a project “Environmental Impact Assessment in Ukraine — Preparatory support to the Launch of the National Registry” with a goal to develop and introduce a Unified Environmental Impact Assessment Registry in accordance with the EU standards and with account to the Ukrainian context. The Registry is available for free access of all stakeholders at eia.menr.gov.ua.
By Yulia Gudoshnyk for UNDP Ukraine