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Air pollution in a tweet: Communicating complex science

MD Staff

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Pant is passionate about communicating science better, combining data and meaningful narratives. Photo by Pallavi Pant

Air pollution is a complex issue that is difficult to communicate to most people. What causes air pollution? How does it affect our children’s cognitive development? What does air pollution have to do with rising temperatures?

Pallavi Pant is an air quality scientist who received her PhD in urban air quality in 2014. Today, she is a staff scientist at the Health Effects Institute in Boston. She is also Social Media Editor with the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, where she aims to communicate the journal’s work to a broader audience.

“But when it comes to communicating science, it’s vital to get the facts right. Young people like Pallavi—experts in their field with a passion to drive forward clear messages about air pollution, health and climate—are commendable in their ability to communicate the problems and how we can be part of the solution.”

This International Youth Day, themed “transforming education,” we asked Pant why, as a scientist, she feels compelled to tweet. How does she educate and bring complex messages to a non-scientific audience?

What influenced your decision to be a scientist, and is being a woman in this field a challenge?

I grew up in a household where curiosity was encouraged. I remember designing scientific experiments to test hypotheses as a kid with my friends. Throughout high school and college, I took steps towards a career in environmental science. In the early days, I wasn’t sure what aspect I would focus on; air pollution piqued my interest and I spent more time understanding it better. My personal experience living in Delhi—seeing the quality of air change over time—was another key contributing factor. Being a woman in science is fun and exciting, but also poses challenges. Occasionally, it has been difficult to deal with stereotypes that influence people’s interactions. In some instances, it is also about being safe—in the field working alone for example. But overall, I’ve had a good experience, and my mentors have been supportive.

Why do you feel it’s important to communicate science to a general audience?

Huge portions of important scientific research are still behind paywalls, and people are often unable to find accurate, reliable information, especially on digital media. Combined with the need for ‘bite-sized’ information, it is critical that scientists find ways to engage with the public, to dispel myths where they exist, and share useful information. After all, the goal for science is to help move towards a better future, isn’t it? During my PhD program, I started a knowledge platform—Air Quality in India—to publicize and communicate the latest science and policy developments on air pollution. I co-founded a similar effort for South Asia—Air South Asia. It is important that accurate, scientifically valid information is brought to the public. I also give public seminars on the topic of air pollution, and I answer queries from concerned individuals about sources of air pollution and possible impacts on human health. I engage with organizations that work directly with communities and point them towards trusted sources of information. On social media, I post curated content on air pollution.

The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology is one of the first environmental journals to create its own social media platforms. What influenced this decision?  

When I spoke with the journal editors, it was clear that they were trying to expand the reach and make the information accessible to a broad audience. I had some experience doing that, and this seemed to be an excellent opportunity to expand my skills too! We hope to disseminate new findings from research published in the journal on social media, and get others interested in the field of environmental health.

What is the biggest challenge you face in communicating air pollution science?

When we train as scientists, we are encouraged to speak in scientific terms. The first issue I encountered was to learn to take a minute and think about my choice of words, and how they would be interpreted by a particular audience. Air pollution science is often complex, and it is a hard task to explain the nuance of the science while making it engaging and interesting. For example, air pollutants can be primary [directly emitted] and secondary [formed in atmosphere from other pollutants], and control strategies are very different for both types of pollutants. Communicating this effectively can be challenging. Sometimes, it is only a matter of directing people to the right information. In other cases, some thinking is required. In all cases, the bottom line for me is to make the information relatable for the particular audience.

How do you hope to take your storytelling to a level where it can reach more people?

I am still learning ways to communicate science better, and weave data and stories together to generate meaningful narratives for people. This year, I am hoping to expand a large, open-source database on air pollution in India, set up a mentoring network for women in air quality in the South and continue working to expand the reach of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.   

Can you summarize the main threats of air pollution in 140 characters?

Air pollution impacts our health, environment & economy; we need to act both at personal & societal levels to improve the quality of air.  

UN Environment

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Science & Technology

3 emerging smart home trends of 2019

MD Staff

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If you’re building a new home, you want it to be stylish, functional, and of course, state of the art with the latest technology advancements. Smart home features are on top of the wish list for homeowners, with 81 percent of homebuyers stating they would favor purchasing a home with smart accessories already installed, according to Digitized House. By building your own home, you get the advantage of these features being integrated seamlessly into the design.

Every year, smart home technology gets better and better, with new trends emerging that make homeowners’ lives easier and more convenient than ever before. Here are some of the top smart home trends of 2019 that you may want to integrate into your building plans:

Smart circuit breakers

For the most part, circuit breaker boxes in traditional homes have remained unchanged for decades. The mysterious gray box in your basement or garage is one that you tend to avoid, but smart design and technology is taking these load centers into the 21st century. Leviton’s new load center with optional internet connectivity sends homeowners real-time monitoring data and customizable alerts to their smart devices.

How does it work? The Leviton Load Center’s smart circuit breakers communicate with a Wi-Fi or Ethernet-enabled data hub to report real-time status. Using the My Leviton App, homeowners can conveniently monitor electrical usage per circuit branch or specific appliance, safely turning breakers off remotely if needed. Smart circuit breakers also report home energy consumption, including historical views by day, month or even year. The My Leviton App also allows users to receive alerts when a circuit breaker trips, or if a circuit is using more energy than usual. They can even set contractors as recipients of these notification and give them secure access to their app’s panel view, allowing them to troubleshoot remotely. No more wondering if the stove was left on — you’ll be able to see instantly.

More than just a simpler way to improve your home’s safety, if you’re concerned about your home’s energy output, Leviton’s smart circuit breakers provide real-time data on how each circuit is performing, as well as information on current and historical costs — so you can make smarter energy choices. Good for the environment and your utility bill. Learn more at www.leviton.com/loadcenter.

Smart comfort

You want to stay comfortable from season to season in your home, but you also want to heat and cool it efficiently. Smart temperature controls are making this easier than ever for homeowners, allowing you to put the temperature decisions virtually on auto-pilot.

Smart thermostats go beyond programmable thermostats by using technology to analyze heating and cooling usage and maximizing efficiency for when you are home versus when you are gone. Connected to an app on your phone, the technology knows through your device’s physical location if you are home or away at work. It records patterns and begins to make suggestions and adjustments based on your lifestyle. These smart temperature controls allow you to make automatic adjustments remotely if necessary, so if you’re headed home early, you can have the house to your ideal temperature by the time you arrive.

With access to historical energy use data and temperature control charts, you’ll be able to analyze your energy footprint and make informed decisions about how you want to use your home’s heating and cooling systems best for your comfort and for the environment.

Smart security systems

It’s amazing what modern home security can do when paired with smart home technology. Not only will your home be safer, but it will be more accessible, too.

For example, pair cameras with intelligent locks to let you know who is at your door even when you’re away. If it’s your child coming home from school, they can be safely let into the house. If it’s a package delivery, you will know right away. If it’s a package thief, you can be alerted and take action through two-way audio before the police arrive. Smart cameras can detect people, animals and things, making your spaces incredibly secure.

Smart sensors are also a big part of the smart home security trend, bringing peace of mind to homeowners. These sensors monitor environmental changes in the home, so you’re alerted to air quality changes and other concerns such as temperature fluctuations or smoke. For example, you’ll know right away if high levels of carbon monoxide are detected, whether you’re at home or away.

Another way to keep your home safe is by making it look like you are home when you are away. Smart lighting options such as the Leviton Decora Smart with Wi-Fi Technology enables you to schedule lights to turn on and off throughout the day from any location all through the convenience of the My Leviton App.

When building a home, it’s important to make it a smart home. These three emerging areas are bringing the home fully into the future with more innovations still to come.

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‘Better Future’ lies in prosperity of startups

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With the slogan of ‘Better Future’, the 25th edition of Iran International Exhibition of Electronics, Computer & E-commerce (ELECOMP 2019) is currently underway at Tehran Permanent International Fairground.

As its name suggests, ELECOMP is a major event in the electronics and computer industry, however, over the past five editions, organizers decided to allocate a part of the exhibition to emerging startups under the title of ELECOM Stars.

And now startups manifest their growth during recent years by presenting their products and services in seven halls of the exhibition.

Startups open new windows of opportunity for removing social, economic and even environmental challenges worldwide and Iran is not an exception.

The motivation and innovation of young entrepreneurs, who are the founders of startups, is a great chance, which should not be ignored by officials and organizations.

ELECOM Stars hosts different ranges of startups from emerging to well-established ones with reasonable prices in order to encourage all the people active in the field of the innovation ecosystem.

Officials are concerned about the attendance of innovators as well as visitors in this edition of the exhibition due to the hard economic situation as a result of the sanctions.

However, startups which fill seven halls of the exhibition show the dynamicity of the innovation ecosystem in these hard days.

During a meeting on the sidelines of the exhibition, the head of the Iranian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Guild Organization, Mohammad Baqer Asna-Ashari, said that many startups which attended the previous edition of ELECOM Stars requested bigger stands in this edition.

“This shows the growth of startups during a year and also the role of ELECOMP in their activities,” he said.

Startups are stars in the sky of smart Iran

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said during the opening ceremony of the event that as its name suggests, ELECOM Stars is home to the startups which shine like stars in the sky of smart Iran.

He pointed to No-Afarin, a scheme introduced by the Information and Communication Technology Ministry to support startups last week, with the slogan of ‘Smart Iran, brighter future’, saying, “Today, many tasks can be done by a click and this digital transformation should be considered by managers in order to increase their efficiency and expand markets.”

In the near future, the digital economy would be the prevalent kind of economy worldwide, he said.

“Despite U.S. sanctions, young entrepreneurs in the field of ICT can use the national digital economy in order to expand markets.”

ELECOMP, hope for a better future

As a gathering of the innovation ecosystem of Iran, ELECOMP promises a better future which is realized by the motivation and energy of the young generation.

Startups and their services have a direct impact on the everyday life of people and this is one of their strong points.

Being a part of the private sector, their efficiency is an important factor for their consistency and it is linked with their benefits for the public.

As you can see, startups provide a market which benefits entrepreneurs and people at the same time and perhaps this is the key to their growth during recent years.

The good news is that the government has recognized their unique potentialities and abilities and plan to support them with no direct intervention, an approach that paves the way for the development of the innovation ecosystem in the future.

ELECOMP 2019

In addition to ELECOM Stars, ELECOM Talks, ELECOM Trends, and ELECOM Games are other parts of the event, which runs until July 21.

This edition of ELECOMP has also designed ELECOM Tours in order to provide special programs for visiting the exhibition as well.

This edition of ELECOMP also provides a user-friendly place for startups that bring disability solutions to the market. Tech breakthroughs that empower people with disabilities have set up stands with special features.

Since its first edition in 1995, the event has been providing a unique opportunity for businesses to increase their share of this huge and ever-growing market.

The event provides an opportunity for companies to share knowledge, build vendor relationships and work with prominent companies, active in the field of electronics and computer to enhance their market spread.

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Digital tracking of environmental risks offers insights to humanitarian actors

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

By the end of this day many people will have made life-changing decisions, relying on their best guess or their instinct. Some will yield great results while others will imperil individuals, corporations and communities.

Humanitarian crises require that we make difficult choices. As they increasingly become complex, as are their impact on the environment, the choices we make must be the right ones. And to make sound, informed decisions, we need data. 

Thankfully today, all those who work in the environmental field have at their fingertips a combination of global environmental data, technologies and data science tools and techniques. These have the potential to create insights that can underpin a sustainable future and profoundly transform our relationship with our planet.

For decades, the UN Environment Programme has been working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and partners such as the UN Refugee Agency, to make sense of environmental data for improved humanitarian planning.

In December last year, UN Environment with support from the UN Refugee Agency piloted an innovative tool for environmental data gathering and risk assessment, the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+). The tool was deployed in the Mantapala refugee settlement in northern Zambia.

Built around existing farmland, Mantapala refugee settlement, near Nchelenge in northern Zambia, was built in 2018 for up to 20,000 people. It was designed to enable refugees to make a living while contributing to local development. The surrounding humid sub-tropical Mantapala Forest Reserve—an area characterized by rich biodiversity—includes the productive Wet Miombo Woodland.

According to the UN Refugee agency, Zambia hosts at least 41,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mantapala refugee settlement is home to around 13,000 of them.

 Daily life isn’t easy. Flash floods can be common during the long rainy seasons when rainfalls are particularly heavy. In addition, less than 20 per cent of Nchelenge district’s households have access to electricity, and even when they do, it is so expensive that people prefer to use firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels.

“With pressure mounting on natural resources throughout the world, we are exploring how to support humanitarian actors in collecting, sharing and processing environmental data for better decision-making using innovative digital environmental tools such as the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) and MapX—a United Nations-backed platform—in Mantapala settlement and beyond,” says David Jensen, UN Environment’s Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding and Co-Director of MapX.

What makes NEAT+ so appealing is its simplicity. It is a user-friendly environmental screening tool for humanitarian contexts, which combines environmental data with site-specific questions to automatically analyse and flag priority environmental risks. The tool was developed by eight humanitarian and environmental organizations as part of the Joint Initiative, a multi-stakeholder project aimed at improving collaboration between environmental and humanitarian actors. NEAT+ supports humanitarian actors in quickly identifying issues of concern to increase the efficiency, accountability and sustainability of emergency or recovery interventions.

“NEAT+ answers the demand of a simple process to assess the sensitivity of the environment in displacement settings. It overlays environmental realities with a proposed humanitarian intervention, identifying risk and mitigation measures,” says Emilia Wahlstrom, Programme Officer, UN Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit.

NEAT+ runs on KoBo—a free, open source data collection platform—built by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative—that allows data to be collected through phone, tablet or computer. Once the data is recorded, the programme automatically generates a report in Excel, categorizing risk into high, medium and low, and providing information that can help mitigate the risk.

As a next step, NEAT+ will draw increasingly on MapX, an online, open-source, fully-customizable platform for accessing and visualizing geospatial environmental data. It offers various tools to highlight different environmental risks such as deforestation, natural hazards and flood risks. NEAT will use MapX to gather and vizualise data.

In the Mantapala settlement, the NEAT+ assessment tool was used to identify negative environmental and livelihoods impacts in the settlement, where MapX spatial data highlighted nearby areas of environmental concern.

The results showed opportunities for environmental action. Where there was risk of deforestation, alternative livelihoods and agroforestry programmes could be supported. Agricultural plots vulnerable to flood damage are undergoing modification to prevent further deforestation and to reduce flood risks.

“Developing a digital ecosystem for the environment offers the possibility to access the best available data for decision-making. Tools such as MapX and NEAT+ are critical in mitigating the effects of sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset environmental change and degradation,” says Jensen.

“Developing and applying the NEAT+ tool has showed us the added value the environmental community can bring to the frontlines of humanitarian response. By taking the time to understand the environmental context they operate in, humanitarian actors are designing programmes that are saving money, contributing to a healthy environment, and supporting the dignity, livelihoods and health of affected people. This is critical for an increasingly complex and protracted global humanitarian crisis panorama,” comments Wahlstrom.

In 2019, the same actors who developed the NEAT+ tool, the Joint Initiative partners, launched the Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect website. Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is a unique digital tool spanning the humanitarian-environment nexus and represents the first comprehensive online repository of environmental and humanitarian action tools and guidance. It is easily searchable and readily accessible, whether at the office, at home, or in the field. The content aligns with the humanitarian programme cycle with specific guidance available for humanitarian clusters and themes.

Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is administered and updated by the United Nations Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit. Through the Joint Unit, UN Environment and OCHA respond as one to the environmental dimensions of emergencies. The partnership assists countries affected by disasters and crises and works to enhance the sustainability of humanitarian action. The partnership has supported almost 100 countries and conducted over 200 missions, and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

UN Environment

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