“Lack of Accurate Measurement is Impacting our fight against Air Pollution”

Ambee as an environmental intellegence start-up has gained much recognition in the past year ot two. With a slew of marquee investments, this Bangalroe-based company provides real-time information on hyperlocal air quality. The company started by three friends in 2017, has been touted as one of the most interesting companies from India.

In an exclusive interview, Akshay Joshi, CEO, Ambee, talks about the formative years of Ambee and how the offerings can bring a distinctive advatange to Indian enterprises. Excerpts

Can you talk about the correlation of health & air pollution, and where does air quality dataset fit in?

Every year, over 9 million deaths across the world are due to air pollution. In a single day, across the world over 1700 children under the age of five die because of unhealthy air. The World Health Organization states that air pollution is the single biggest environmental health risk that we face.

Akshay Joshi

One of the biggest factors impacting our fight against air pollution is the lack of accurate measurement. In spite of the alarming statistics and facts, there is little being done to combat pollution and solve this crisis. There is hardly any reliable data for regular people to understand and gauge the quality of air in their immediate surroundings. Outside of major cities and metros, there is nearly zero measurements of air quality. This shows that we are unaware of the quality of the air we breathe, the impact it has on our health and whether the steps are taken or solutions implemented are actually improving air quality around us. At Ambee our mission is to measure and democratize access to data and eventually work towards improving air quality for future generations.

The air you breathe is a direct indicator of immediate and long-term health. Small changes in air pollution – the kind you might find between different streets or neighbourhoods – are proven to significantly increase the risk of various cancers, heart disease, birth deformities, and even dementia and diabetes. For those of us that ride to work, the ability to ‘see’ pollution on the way may well incentivize us to choose a route that is a couple of minutes longer, but noticeably cleaner. For the joggers and runners among us, picking a cleaner path or choosing the right time to run makes a huge difference to our overall health. Biking or running a polluted route if you’re health-conscious is like eating ice cream after every workout and hoping to lose weight. You could start making decisions on where to rent a house or office, looking at historical data. After all, family health is a basic factor in any decision. Even schools can be triaged, depending on which school’s play area and routes are least polluted. Bear in mind, when you think of how kids are exposed to pollution, that half of all children in Delhi already have irreversible lung damage.

What is Environment Intelligence and what is the application?

Environment intelligence is a broad term to describe data that combines the minute details of meteorology, geospatial insights, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, forest fire, micro-weather, water quality and more. This platform helps optimize the operations of a business sustainably, helps understand demand and  develop better products, analyze environmental trendsand how they relate to products and users, prepare better logistics, market products and services betterand more.

What is the relevance of “accurate air quality data & environmental data” to different industry verticals, can you share some instances?

The ability to use air quality data isn’t limited to individuals alone. Businesses will find this useful and value adding. Insurers could work with policyholders, helping them improve their health and reduce risk, all based on what they breathe. Drug formulations could be developed and tested better and faster if environmental data was considered. Real estate companies would be able to market their offerings as healthier and cleaner, making them better investments for families . They would also be sure to stick to best practices in construction, ensuring that the area remains clean. All industries that strive to meet emissions and pollution norms could ensure real-time compliance and reporting, satisfying customers, authorities, and investors. With the current focus on ESG norms, this would go a long way with a lot of people.

Governments and administrations can also benefit massively from better air pollution data. Data-driven decisions are a key factor in better governance, and India continues to be amongst the earliest adopters of this trend. Using hyperlocal and real-time air pollution data, a government can make an informed decision on whether initiatives like no-car zones, odd-even days, or one-way roads make an appreciable difference to the environment. Quick crackdowns on polluters, using real-time data, will have the triple effect of better public health, increased government revenue through fines, and increased goodwill across the citizenry. Public health, a massive concern that will only balloon, can also be hugely impacted using air quality data. Whether it means apportioning better health resources in the form of medicines or pulmonologists in sensitive areas, or a longer term effort in curbing air pollution, the possibilities are immense.

Ambee Team with the co-founders

Air quality is dynamic, how is the data collected? How do you ensure accuracy as there are third-party data that is being used?

We combine the data from our dense sensor network, on-ground sensors, American and European satellites, along with models trained on historical data. A continuous error correction engine is in place to reference data against reference grade stations including eBAMs (Beta attenuation monitors)that not only ensure benchmarking but also accuracy. We also account for specific factors like dustdue to construction, traffic, and population density. All of thesecorrelate with air pollution,and the environment.  This results in the highest possible accuracy of data, at a high spatio-temporal resolution.

  • Physical & chemical reaction factors

We engineered our systems to assess the physical and chemical reactions that lead pollutants to react and influence measurement. For example, hyper-local weather plays a crucial role in dispersion of pollutants creating smog, pollen and ozone.

  • Dynamic human activities

Ambee’s proprietary algorithms carefully factor in human activities like garbage burning, vehicular traffic, construction and industrial emissions that play a major role in creating pollution, CO2 emissions, and other hyperlocal environmental factors. It’s surprising just how many things influence air quality!

Based on your data, can you throw some interesting insights on air pollution levels in India?

India has seen a growth of ~70% increase in PM2.5 in major urban cities. Simple factors, like an increased level of prosperity leading to more personal vehicles and taxis, have increased the pollutants of CO, NO2 and SO2. Festive seasons and annual festive sales by e-commerce companies has led to an increase in pollution due to higher movement of people and inflow of transport vehicles.

In Delhi, the air monitoring stations were increased in the last few years. According to research, PM2.5 and CO emissions were estimated to be 17% and 18% from vehicle exhaust, 16% and 31% from power plants, 15% and 12% for brick kilns, 14% and 15% for industries, 12% and 14% for domestic emissions, respectively and so on.

Chennai and Delhi saw the most significant improvement in air pollution during the lockdown so much so that what was once believed as unachievable was achieved. Many experts had said that it is impossible for Delhi to ever be in the safe limits (under 50 AQI). However, during Covid19 lockdown some parts of Delhi were under 40, showing that it was indeed possible and can be controlled with adequate measures and policies in place. Chennai saw single-digit PM2.5 in many parts of the city during the lockdown even without the rains.

How many corporates in India are you working with? Can you name them? What is the team size, and the vision?

We work with leading corporates across India and the globe. Our partners tend to be companies that are driven by science and technology and have a huge focus on innovation. The world is moving towards measuring and analysing every facet of environmental and public health information, and the early movers want to be able to stay ahead of the curve on this. The upside is the ability to create better products and experiences, while having a positive impact on millions and the planet itself. We work with organisations across aviation, home appliances, big data, utilities, pharma, and insurance. We’re a small and super focused team and we’re now expanding with some great new teammates with whom we gel culturally and ethically. In the next few years, we will become the default choice for environmental intelligence.

How has the funding been? How has Ambee raised capital?

We raised a small round from marquee angel investors in India. We sought out people who understand the scale of this problem, how it’s actually affecting this generation and future ones, and how we’re looking to solve it. We’re very lucky to have some great investors on board – Rajan Anandan, Ambarish Kenghe, Dina Wadia, Anuj Munot are some well known ones. We also have some promoters and family offices. And of course, both Venture Catalyst and Techstars, our investors, have been recognised as the world’s most active early-stage investors.

Do you intend to work with government agencies for ways and means to turn this data into actionable insight?

We are speaking with administrations across the world who have shown interest. This has taken on an accelerated pace following the current pandemic crisis and a renewed interest in public health and all respiratory health factors.

Are there any patents filed? Who are the backers?

Yes we are in the process of IP discovery and protection. Since we are constantly researching new ways to solve this massive global problem, IP work also tends to be a continuous process.

You are offering a free API, how can that be used by developers, etc.? Can a layperson also use it?

Developers can build applications that help users who are affected by the problem of air pollution. For example, a simple app that helps take actions to carpool or understand the risks of using diesel generators in the neighbourhood, suggest routes and times to take their child out for a walk, or recommend better places and time that have cleaner air for a run. Travel apps, apps in digital therapies, health & fitness, agriculture, lifestyle, home automation, marketing and advertising and many more could be built using a suite of our APIs that include real-time air, weather, pollen, fire data, and more. For a layperson, we built www.indianairpollution.com and we’re also coming up with a mobile app that helps you live a better, less polluted life.

Finally, what is the genesis of the name Ambee and the tri-colored logo?

When Madhusudhan, my cofounder, first came up with the idea, Ambee appealed to him as an easy name that signifies the ambience or environment around you. The logo represents the distinct factors of your everyday ambience and environment – air, water, and weather – that affect all of us, irrespective of anything else.


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