Published: 24th May 2020
We know the air we breathe is toxic. Bengaluru-based start-up Ambee tells us just how much
Ambee has installed over 500 sensors all over India. The start-up has air quality data for over one lakh pincodes across 65 countries. This is how they do what they do extremely efficiently
If you ask me, wearing a mask should have been the norm even before COVID-19 shook our world. Why? Because of air pollution, of course. Delhi, especially during Diwali, might have it the worst but 21 of India’s cities are in the world's top 30 most polluted cities list as per IQAir AirVisual's 2019 World Air Quality Report. So masks, yes, but that’s just a teeny-tiny step. The situation calls for more awareness. That’s where this Bengaluru-based environment intelligence start-up steps in. Started by trio Madhusudan Anand, Akshay Joshi and Jaideep Singh Bachher in 2017, Ambee measures hyperlocal air quality in real-time, not just with the help of their own proprietary sensor data but they also use multiple sources of satellite imagery, government pollution data from around the world, meteorological data and every open-source air pollution data they can lay their hands on. This data is processed using their proprietary intelligence methods.
It was when Madhusudan’s six-year-old son started developing breathing issues due to air pollution that he developed a basic air quality sensor to monitor air quality. And that was just the beginning. Akshay Joshi, CEO and Co-Founder of Ambee, takes us through their journey to date and tells us about all the plans they have for their company. Excerpts:
1. From making a rudimentary sensor that gives data about the air quality around one's residence to today's sensor that Ambee uses — tell us about the evolution of the sensor.
The original Ambee sensor was hacked together in a few hours and served the purpose of immediately measuring the air quality for a day or two. Over the course of time, we realised that not everyone can have a sensor with them at all times. So, we built an entire air quality data network that can be accessed by anyone anywhere with an internet connection. This was possible because we have expertise in technology and data science. We continue to use our sensors for internal measurement and benchmarking purposes. These sensors are extremely hardy, reliable and have been benchmarked by US governmental bodies.
Akshay Joshi, Madhusudan Anand and Jaideep Singh Bachher | (Pic: Ambee)
2. Tell us more about the multimodal approach that you use to combat the cost problem of setting up the sensors.
We realised early on that the number of sensors we could put out was small. Not everyone can afford a sensor, however cheap it may be. The scale of the problem required a better solution. So, we researched multiple forms of data - from satellite images to traffic density. We built our proprietary algorithms, which use these varied forms of data, and we included our IoT network data as well. The end result is that we have real-time accurate air quality data, which is currently at a neighbourhood and postcode level, around the world.
3. Tell us about a few challenges that you have encountered in your journey and how have you managed to combat them?
An early challenge was whether to go down the hardware path or avoid it. Hardware can accelerate early sales but plateaus quickly and poses problems of scale, supply chain and defensibility. We switched to a data play and that’s when the interest from investors went up significantly. It has been both challenging and rewarding to battle misconceptions. ‘What use is it’ is one common misconception. Ambee’s accurate data allows you to pick a healthier neigbhourhood to live in or time to commute, even in a very polluted city. We’ve seen the difference in winter in Delhi and it’s not something to take lightly. When we began Ambee, very few people understood what we were doing. Now, we get inbound interest from customers.
Team Ambee | (Pic: Ambee)
4. How do you ensure that the data is easy for a common man to understand? Especially since we have access to the data through indianairpollution.com
We believe that everyone has the right to know what they’re breathing and, of course, we’ve personally lived the problem, which is why we started this company. IAP and globalairpollution are just two free websites that we put up for people to have real-time information. We saw massive responses to the point where we had to restrict the number of queries each user could make to 50 or we risked a crash. We really never expected this kind of response.
5. Apart from Delhi and a few other cities up North, there are a few cities in India where we see the true consequences of declining air quality in a huge way. When do you think India will wake up to this emergency?
I think we’re already seeing a fair amount of awareness. For the first time, air pollution was an election topic in 2019. There is a lot of awareness that wasn’t around as recently as three years ago. In fact, people are now aware of the fact that air pollution and climate change are closely linked. The summers are getting hotter and we are taking notice of it. I believe that we will now start making choices that positively affect the environment.
6. What is the future that you envision for Ambee? What other fields do you see yourself dabbling in?
Our technology has been appreciated by businesses and non-profits around the world. Currently, we are the B2B air quality data and analytics provider of choice to a host of media, therapeutics and insurance companies, in addition to enterprises as diverse as consumer goods and aviation. Going forward, we will apply our learnings to other spheres of the environment. Our clients have already asked us for environmental intelligence with a more holistic overview. We see this path leading to a future where Ambee is the default choice for environmental data, much like Google is for search or Bloomberg is for financial data.
7. In retrospect, how has the journey been so far?
For us, it’s been a deeply personal journey. My co-founder and CTO Madhusudhan (Maddy) built the first working model for his own infant son, who was seriously ill. Doctors were unable to explain why the child was wheezing and unable to breathe, until he collected hyperlocal air quality data and modelled it. He found that the levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) near his house were touching dangerous levels of 800 ug/m3. This led to awareness in the neighbourhood and amongst local paediatricians. At this point, he realised the need to implement this solution on a much larger scale. We gave up our jobs and decided this was a pressing need and possibly a large market. Being an entrepreneur in the business of clean technology and sustainability, we have the ability to impact the lives of billions across the globe. Maddy still remembers the voice of the parents who called him, thanking him for making their kids’ health better. As an entrepreneur and as a human being, there can be nothing better.
Ambee could see significant improvement in air quality across cities:
- In Bengaluru, prior to the lockdown, the average AQI was around 100 but during the course of the strict lockdown, the AQI was around 61. Post-May 3, once the lockdown was partially lifted, the average AQI increased to 71 owing to movement of vehicles
- In Delhi, prior to the lockdown, the average AQI was above 120, whereas once the lockdown was put in place, there was a drastic drop in AQI and it was less than 100. Interestingly, once though the lockdown has been partially lifted, the AQI level is still around 90
- In Mumbai, the average AQI before March 21 was above 110 and during the lockdown, it was around 80. With lockdown continuing even post-May3, the AQI level dropped to around 60
- In Hyderabad, the average AQI prior to lockdown was in the range of 100-120. During the course of the lockdown, the AQI was around 80 and it has remained in the same range even after the relaxations
- In Chennai, prior to the lockdown, the average AQI was between the range of 70-80 and during the lockdown, there was a remarkable improvement in AQI. From March 21 onwards, the AQI was in the range of 40-50 and post-May 3, it improved even further with AQI level ranging between 30-40
For more on them, check out getambee.com