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Air contamination & citizen monitoring


CanAirIO: Citizen Science Air Monitoring and Advocacy Network

Daniel Bernal presents to the Bogotá city council about the importance of citizen air quality monitoring.

CanAirIO is a citizen science network for air quality monitoring, working to increase Bogotanos' access to data about the quality of air that they are exposed to as well as involving citizens in framing scientific and policy debates about air quality. CanAirIO grew out of the work of environmental activist Daniel Bernal — who created low-cost air monitors that he used to track air quality exposure while riding the TransMilenio, Bogotá's public transit system — and open source software activist Antonio Vanegas who developed an open-source app that can track and visualize the data that is generated. The early data they gathered using this technology, which Bernal publicized — and continues to publicize — on Twitter and on his blog Aire Ciudadano, caught the attention of other environmentally-engaged Bogotanos. In September of 2018, they gathered together to form CanAirIO. To make their technology accessible, CanAirIO organizes in-person workshops and posts online tutorials that walk people through how they can build their own sensors and begin data collection. CanAirIO sensors and software have been taken up by residents of Bogotá, as well as other Latin American cities, and most recently in California during the 2020 fire season.  

This is an excerpt from the Nuevos Aires webinar series hosted by CanAirIO in November 2020, bringing together air quality activists and researchers from across Colombia and beyond. Watch the full webinar.

A step-by-step tutorial for how to build your own CanAirIO air quality sensor. Accompanying information about materials needed to make the sensor can be found at here.

CanAirIO promotes a philosophy of science of the commons, or open science, which entails not only making data and data collection accessible to citizens, but also paving paths for citizens to propose the questions and concerns that should drive data collection and analysis, based on the problems they experience in their own lives. Through real time monitoring of PM 2.5, CanAirIO's mobile sensors allow people to measure the changes in air quality that their bodies are exposed to, such as on a bike ride to work. Along with equipping individuals to adapt their routes to protect their health, CanAirIO engages these citizens collectively to build an advocacy network in Bogotá that is claiming the right to clean air, as they track and make visible air pollution that was previously not measured. 

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Workshop led by CanarIO for the collaborative construction of low cost sensors. More information here

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A new model of mobile CanarIO sensor that can be worn like a watch. More information here.

Ricardo Zapata discusses how citizen mobilization around air quality emerged in the Colombian city of Medellín.

Watch the full webinar

To this end, CanAirIO coordinates a network of 28 stationary monitoring points in Bogotá that prioritizes socio-economically vulnerable sectors, many of which suffer from the worst air quality in the city. For instance, in Ciudad Bolívar in southern Bogotá, one of the poorest districts of the city. Residents in this district are exposed to air pollution emanating from highly congested major arteries of the city used by large trucks, the city dump, and industrial production of bricks and other materials, as well as mining for construction materials. CanAirIO now has three monitoring stations in Ciudad Bolívar and has been partnering with residents to make public denunciations of when and where PM2.5 concentrations are found to regularly spike to acutely dangerous levels. Until late October 2020, the Bogotá city government's air quality monitoring network (which has 18 stations) had only one monitoring station in this district, located in its northernmost corner. This is essentially the farthest possible point from the above mentioned environmental hazards especially the dump, mining site, and brick manufacturing, which are all located in the southernmost sector of Ciudad Bolívar. 

Images 1-3 demonstrate CanarIO's live visualization of the data gathered from their fixed sensor network


Image 1 depicts a time when the city was suffering from relatively poor air quality, and we see that it is worst in the south and southwest of the city.


Image 2 shows a moment when the city at large enjoyed healthy air quality, but the CanarIO sensors in the Tunjuelito locality and the Barrio Mexico neighborhood of Ciudad Bolívar were able to register the effects of a locally contaminating process.


Image 3 shows the temporal patterns that can be visualized for each of the sensors in the network. The live monitoring data can be viewed here.


Image 4 shows data from a mobile CanarIO sensor used on a bike ride across Bogotá, showing how the presence of high emissions buses affect the air directly experienced by those who have chosen to travel the city in more ecologically sound ways. Source

Right to a healthy environment


The right to a healthy environment is recognized in Article 79 of the 1991 Political Constitution, which is also known as the “Green

Constitution.” Through their legal and public policy activism, 

CanAirIO members hope to solidify the right to clean air as an integral part of the right to a healthy environment.


The full Constitution can be read here, and an English translation here


Additionally, the CanAirIO network integrates monitoring across administrative divisions, extending into the impoverished neighboring city of Soacha, where many of the displaced people who arrive in Bogotá first settle. This allows the CanAirIO network to communicate a picture of air quality that more accurately reflects meteorological and social realities of the city and surrounding areas, in which Bogotá city proper and Soacha are closely integrated, with people and pollution moving frequently between them. However, since Soacha is constituted as a separate city, it is outside the jurisdiction of the Bogotá Secretary of Environment.  Instead, the regional environmental authority carries out the air quality monitoring, but does not make live air quality monitoring data available for Soacha's residents. 

CanAirIO has also partnered with the legal research and advocacy organization DeJusticia to hold the government accountable for instituting stricter regulations on air pollution. Together they are building a legal case claiming the right to clean air as a fundamental part of all Colombians' constitutional right to a healthy environment. 

Expansion of CanAirIO citizen initiatives

Unlike many citizen science initiatives that grow out of the academy, CanAirIO has grown from the bottom up, merging citizen concerns and expertise, and at times partnering with academics, but maintaining autonomy. The growth of the network beyond Bogotá has been equally as organic, demonstrating the ways that citizen experiences and exposures are interconnected through global phenomena, such as fossil fuel extraction, consumption, and climate change.


Interest in citizen science air monitoring initiatives has been growing in California, where climate change has brought about a prolonged and intensified wildfire season. In Northern California, a CanAirIO sensor has been used to track exposures to dangerously elevated levels of PM2.5 due to wildfires. Other groups, such as SciStarter and the All of Us California health research consortium, have helped promote CanAirIO's tutorials in the US. 


CanAirIO sensors are being used by two groups in Lima, Peru, the Círculo de Investigación INGETCAR at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina and at the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología. Lima suffers from air pollution problems similar to those in Bogotá where diesel transportation plays a large role.


Residents of Barrancabermeja in Santander, Colombia are using a CanAirIO mobile sensor to track exposures in the city, which is home to one of Colombia's major oil refineries. The majority of the oil used for domestic consumption is processed in the Barrancabermeja refinery.


A CanAirIO sensor was installed to help investigate the exposures by a community near the El Cerrejon coal mine in La Guajira, Colombia, the largest open pit coal mine in the world. These extractive operations have exposed local indigenous Wayyu, Afro-Colombian (Rochela), and mestizo communities to contamination in the air they breathe and their water supply. 

Images created by AFY Studio







Click here to see the reference materials used in the research for this topic.



Learn more about our public engaged, participatory research process.



Find out ways to support local efforts and community-led processes and initiatives.

Case study: Fontibón

Neighbors in Los Cámbulos neighborhood in the Fontibón 

district in the western part of Bogotá have been organizing to combat air and noise pollution. They recently installed four CanAirIO sensors to bolster their efforts.

The neighborhood has been affected by the expansion of the El Dorado international airport that borders the neighborhood to the north. This has led to an increase in the number of industrial sites in the area, catering to airport operations and export, and also traffic, including diesel trucks that are rerouted directly through the residential streets of the neighborhood when the highway becomes jammed. In addition to these sources of air contamination that affect much of the south and west of the city, the expansion of the airport brings disruptive levels of noise pollution from the increasing number of planes. The neighbors of Los Cámbulos are currently organizing against the licensing of the airport to begin 24 hour operations.


Since 2019, however, the most acute air quality problems in Los Cámbulos have centered on the construction of a cremation facility in the local cemetery, run by the Catholic Archdiocese. According to a local community leader, the cemetery has long co-existed relatively harmoniously with the neighborhood. However, tensions have arisen since the installation of the cremation facility, which has impacted the quality of life of residents due to the high levels of particle and odor emissions, emanating from a smokestack that is located only about 8 meters from the nearest house. 


Residents have engaged in various forms of protest trying to shut down the facility, including traditional street protest and legal challenges to the facility´s license to operate. These protests resulted in a temporary closure, but the license was eventually granted by the city. The church officials claim that the technology being used controls emissions, but residents regularly see and smell thick, potent, dark smoke coming from the smokestack.  Following some particularly contentious protests earlier this year (2020), the Bogotá Secretary of Public Health and Secretary of Environment sat down to hear neighbors' concerns. City officials initially agreed to do air quality monitoring to investigate the problem.  

However, after a site visit, representatives of the Secretary of Environment refused to install sensors. They refused on the grounds that they would not be able to tie high readings definitively to the cremation facility because of the many other sources of pollution nearby, particularly small and medium industrial activities. Instead of underscoring the importance of collecting data on the pollution, the high baseline of contamination was used to undermine citizen demands for protective regulation of polluting processes, amplifying the vulnerability of a community already overburdened by contamination.


In contrast to the Secretary of Environment, the Secretary of Public Health did install one sensor for a month; however, none of the data has been made public or shared with residents as of November 2020. In light of this, local activists have turned to a partnership with CanAirIO to make their exposures visible to technocrats and legal actors who demand quantifiable data, and to pressure the government to respond. They have installed four CanAirIO 

sensors in the neighborhood. 

Recommended Further Reading and Viewing:   


Real-time data from CanAirIO’s stationary monitoring points is viewable on this map


Read more about CanAirIO’s citizen science work and advocacy victories in Discover magazine.  


Find out how to build and track air quality with a CanAirIO sensor on their SciStarter page.  


Learn more here about the new administration of the Bogotá city government's plan to reduce air pollution, partially incorporating an environmental justice approach and focusing on the southwest of the city.

Air contamination & citizen monitoring


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