AWS Public Sector Blog

Enabling rapid COVID-19 and air pollution analysis across the globe with OpenAQ and AWS

city traffic with train overpass

OpenAQ is a nonprofit organization empowering communities around the globe to clean their air by harmonizing, sharing, and using open air quality data. Hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), the OpenAQ platform is playing a key role in helping understand how air quality is being impacted by COVID-19.

As part of the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI), we invited Christa Hasenkopf, director and co-founder of OpenAQ, to share how OpenAQ is using AWS to enable better access to and use of key air quality data around the world.

The need for timely access to adequate air quality data

Unravelling the relationship between COVID-19 and air pollution is vital for protecting public health. For example, preliminary works suggest that those living in environments with polluted air are significantly more likely to be adversely affected by COVID-19. At the same time, air pollution is already known to cause an estimated one out of every eight deaths globally. The decrease in human activities due to COVID-19 lockdowns across the world has people wondering how air pollution levels are being impacted—and what valuable public health and policy lessons we can learn.

To advance air pollution and public health work, scientists, policymakers, and civil society need timely access to spatially and temporally fine-grained air quality data from cities around the world.

Enabling access to key air quality data on AWS

To help address this need, OpenAQ, a tech nonprofit, provides aggregated real-time air quality data and makes it openly and freely available on the Registry of Open Data on AWS.

Through its volunteer-oriented open-source platform, OpenAQ harmonizes real-time data from more than 10,000 government air quality monitors in 93 countries, and provides the past 90 days of data through an API. The data is also accessible through a website powered by that same API, where users can interact with the data and download user-specified datasets.

The full historical dataset (nearly 600 million measurements) is publicly accessible via Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) buckets, Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS) topics, and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) snapshots, and can be quickly analyzed with Amazon Athena. The platform uses a range of AWS services including AWS Lambda, Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), Amazon Athena, Amazon RDS, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon S3, Amazon CloudFront, Amazon CloudWatch, Amazon Route 53, Elastic Load Balancing (ELB), Amazon Elastic Block Storage (Amazon EBS), Amazon ElastiCache, Amazon SNS, and Amazon Web Application Firewall (Amazon WAF).

Gaining insights into the impacts of COVID-19 in India

Researchers, developers, and innovators around the world are using the OpenAQ air quality data on AWS to apply their expertise and gain insights into the impacts of COVID-19 and air pollution.

Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, director and co-founder of Urban Emissions, accesses data from the OpenAQ platform to determine how Delhi and cities across India have been impacted by the nationwide lockdown in response to COVID-19. Guttikunda analyzed concentrations of PM2.5 (among other pollutants) before and after the lockdown. PM2.5 is a major pollutant in India’s capital area Delhi, and much of the rest of India, and is primarily generated by combustion. According to Guttikunda’s analysis, with most local activities at a minimum, PM2.5 concentrations have been observed at the background baseline concentration of 35 μg/m3 (March 2020), compared with 100-140 μg/m3, the monthly average (March 2017-2019). This data suggests that at least 70% of pollution is locally generated.

For a country with cities so dense and active, the lockdown has led to unexpected results. In Jalandhar, for example, people could see the Dhauladhar mountain range of Himachal Pradesh (250 kilometers away) for the first time in 30 years.

Guttikunda explains the policy relevance of this work and its reliance on open data: “Real-time access to monitoring data—accessible within an hour’s time—can help us visualize the immediate impacts of events like lockdowns. We can start to statistically ascertain the true background pollution of a city, in the absence of most of the personal, commercial, and industrial activities.”

Assessing the impacts on air quality on public health

To capture a global snapshot of how COVID-19 is impacting the air we breathe—and the public health implications of it—a preliminary study by researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Nature and the Max Planck Institute in Germany examined air quality data from 27 countries by using the data on OpenAQ alongside Sentinel-5p satellite data. The study found that lockdown events have reduced air pollution levels by 20% on average. In terms of public health, their work suggests a significant decline in premature deaths and pediatric asthma cases due to the decline in air pollution. The authors of the study ultimately emphasize, “As the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, empirical data will emerge to fill in the knowledge gaps and uncertainties associated with air pollution health burden attribution.”

AWS’s scalable infrastructure and compute enable new and fast insights

The power of any harmonizing open data-sharing infrastructure is that more people with more types of expertise can get to that emerging data to do more impactful work faster. As Zander Venter of the Norwegian Institute for Nature and lead author of the above study notes, “Without the ability to efficiently query millions of air pollution measurements using Amazon Athena, we would not have been able to assess the global impact of COVID-19 lockdowns so quickly.”

We see the impact of the ability to efficiently access and query data play out every day among the users in the OpenAQ community. It is urgently critical for tools like this to exist in these unprecedented times.

The work developed by Urban Emissions and OpenAQ is supported by the AWS Cloud Credits for Research Program.

Learn more about OpenAQ and the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI).


The content and opinions in this post are those of the third-party author and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.

Christa Hasenkopf

Christa Hasenkopf

Christa Hasenkopf is the director and co‐founder of OpenAQ, a tech non-profit sharing half a billion data points from over 90 countries and convening a global community around them. Hasenkopf fell in love with open data as a mechanism for change in 2011, after launching an open air quality data effort in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Hasenkopf is an adjunct professor at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University. Previously, Hasenkopf was the first chief air pollution advisor to the medical director at the U.S. Department of State and an American Association for the Advancement of Science S&T Fellow at USAID. She is a former Fulbright Scholar, Echoing Green Fellow, and Teach for America corps member. Hasenkopf received a PhD in atmospheric & oceanic sciences from the University of Colorado and a Bachelors in astronomy & astrophysics from the Pennsylvania State University.