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Acknowledge Air Quality with Piotr Jakubowski

Acknowledge Air Quality with Piotr Jakubowski

Born and raised in Jakarta, co-founder and Chief Growth Officer of Nafas, Piotr Jakubowski, is passionate about the air we breathe in Jakarta and its surrounding areas.

He believes that acknowledging air quality data is the way to go. Piotr explains to Indonesia Expat the importance of data collection and reading to help us achieve a cleaner, fresher air quality.

What’s the story behind Nafas? 

Nafas has a simple mission: to help people understand air pollution, its impact on their health, and enable them to reduce their exposure to hazardous air quality.

Humans, normally, cannot survive for more than three minutes without breathing. That makes air quality a lifecycle problem; it affects everyone. Long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause things like developmental problems, lower IQ, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and even premature death.

We believe the key to increasing awareness is showing the issue on a neighbourhood level – it doesn’t just affect Central Jakarta or areas that have a lot of traffic. Our aim is to have everyone in Jabodetabek – DKI Jakarta, Tangerang, South Tangerang, Bekasi, Depok, and Bogor – have access to air quality data within 1km of their home.

How does Nafas accumulate and present the data to the public?

The Nafas app was launched for both Android and iOS in September 2020, providing access to residents of Jabodetabek to air quality data that they may have never seen before. With a very high density of air quality sensors, we are bringing awareness to the problem on a neighbourhood level.

The key to managing the air quality problem is data, which is why Nafas is rapidly expanding the air quality sensor network in these areas. Today, we have over 75 sensors that have been installed and they transmit data every 20 minutes. That far exceeds any level and frequency of data previously available.

For the outdoor sensors, we are partnering with a startup from the European Union called Airly, which in 2019 was highlighted as having the “Best Outdoor Sensor” in the 2019 Microsensors Challenge by Airparif, a French air quality organisation. The sensors are specifically designed for the outdoors and can withstand the elements whilst collecting data.

We work together with different types of companies, both large and small, who are looking to sponsor projects that tie into their ESG commitments. Our flagship partner is Bank Mandiri, who sponsored sensors as part of their ESG goals and have been an incredible supporter of the growth of the network.

You mentioned that air pollution is one of the biggest threats to global human health. DKI Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan in September 2020 also stated that there are millions of citizens with respiratory tract infections. How can Nafas help?

Air quality is an extremely variable problem, the levels of air pollution can vary by location from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season. We have seen situations where air quality is great in one place, but extremely hazardous in another.

These are screenshots collected over the past few weeks, showcasing that air quality can range from “good” to “very unhealthy”, even on the same day – further enforcing the need for us to check our air quality like we would our weather. From June to November 2020, we can see that the average air quality has improved, proving that the issue is seasonal. However, these are just monthly averages, the daily variability is quite high even at times when the air quality is good.

It’s the high concentration of air pollutants that are hazardous to human health, and the pollutant that the WHO is most concerned about is particulate matter 2.5 or PM2.5; 2.5 microns wide, smaller than a red blood cell, and can penetrate our natural respiratory filtering systems to get stuck deep in the lungs.

The Nafas network specifically measures PM2.5 across all of the locations in the city. Through the app, the public can see when levels are good, but also when levels are hazardous for outdoor activities.

This can help in a few ways. First, all citizens have access to their neighbourhood level air quality data and can adjust their plans based on the current levels of air pollution. We’ve even designed an alert in the app which tells athletes and people who like to exercise whether they should reduce their time outdoors.

Secondly, through air quality trends, we can see which locations are hazardous at what times to further understand the causes of pollution in these areas. Any future management of air pollution will require a detailed understanding of the causes of it.

How does Nafas correlate the air quality in Jabodetabek with health risk?

The Air Quality Life Index, created by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, has created a model which correlates concentrations of air pollution to a potential reduction in life expectancy. The most recent report released in July 2020 indicates that the potential reduction in life expectancy for residents of Jakarta is 4.8 years at current levels of air pollution. Unfortunately, the historical trends indicate that air pollution is getting worse year on year.

The WHO has determined a few health-based standards with regards to air pollution: annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 10 µg/m3 and that 24-hour average exposures should not exceed 25 µg/m3 more than three times a year.

In July 2020, Nafas recorded the daily average across 40 locations in Jabodetabek for the entire month and they were 63 µg/m3 and 59 µg/m3 in August. These concentrations far exceed the WHO guidelines, indicating that significant health risk is being taken by the citizens of the city.

According to Berkeley Earth, a daily air quality level of 22 µg/m3 is equivalent to smoking one cigarette. This means that in July, breathing the air was the equivalent of smoking almost three cigarettes per day, over 90 cigarettes in a month!

We are hoping that the density of our networks can help provide hyper-local air quality data so that new research about the impact of air pollution on the health of Jabodetabek citizens can be conducted.

Nafas conducted a study titled “Does exercising in Jakarta’s air pollution impact our health?” which includes a deep-dive into the air quality at 4-9am. Briefly, tell us what Nafas found.

Using data that we collected over August 2020, we referenced a research paper published by the University of Cambridge titled “Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?” which indicated that in high concentrations of PM2.5 air pollution, exercising can be hazardous to your health.

People who exercise are more at risk because during elevated activity, a person’s ventilation rate and volume increase. In some cases, during two hours of heavy activity, a person can breathe the same volume of air as someone who is not doing anything for 24 hours.

The research paper determined a simple scale, comparing the level of air pollution with the time after which exercising no longer has a benefit to our body:

PM 2.5 level Time after which exercise becomes hazardous
100 µg/m3 90 minutes
165 µg/m3 30 minutes
200 µg/m3 Should not exercise at all

It’s important to reiterate the fact that any exercise is better for our health than none– the purpose of this study was to highlight the importance of checking air quality before exercising and, if necessary, adjusting our lifestyles.

The most important discovery made was the fact that, even though the air quality in the capital is highly variable, the summer months follow a curve at 4am-9am where the air quality is consistently the worst throughout the day, regardless of the location.

Some additional key insights we found were:

  1. All locations in Jabodetabek had days when exercise should be reduced to under 90 minutes. Central Jakarta had nine days, whereas South Tangerang, Bogor, and Tangerang all had 19 days with air quality above 100 µg/m3.
  2. Pollution levels varied significantly from day to day across the entire month.
  3. The “greenest” areas of Jabodetabek didn’t have the best air quality.

The full report can be downloaded here:

Bahasa Indonesia: report.nafas.co.id/jakarta-olahraga

English: report.nafas.co.id/jakarta-exercise

Does Nafas collaborate with researchers, NGOs, etc?

We are working on building relationships with institutions, especially since we just launched a few months ago. Our primary goal at launch was to continually install as many sensors as possible so that we have a large dataset to work with. The more data available, the better insights can be drawn from it.

Any organisations, researchers or university programs that would like to work together, please reach out to us!

Jakarta’s air quality has been reported to be better when there’s a simultaneous blackout, odd-even policy, and tighter large-scale social restrictions. We can’t rely on these situations in the long run, but what can we do to improve air quality?

The first step towards air quality improvement is awareness, it is really critical for as many people as possible to acknowledge that there is an issue before committing to change that we can all implement.

That’s why the role of Nafas in this process is critical. We are bringing air quality data down to a neighbourhood level so that it becomes important for the people living there.

With the Nafas app, we can manage our exposure to hazardous air pollution when it happens. In the meantime, there are a few things that the citizens need to do:

  1. Stop burning trash.
  2. Make sure our vehicles pass emissions testing.
  3. Utilise public transport when and where possible.
  4. Let the government know that air quality is an issue we care about.

The Jakarta Provincial Government, in September 2020, announced a commitment to improving Jakarta’s air quality through evolution of policy. One of the components is air quality monitoring, and we are definitely looking forward to collaborating and helping the government with this.

Many people conclude that they breathe fresher air when they step into another city, and emotionally, they admit they’re happier. Is there a scientific explanation behind this?

High levels of air pollution cause a variety of respiratory issues, starting from something as simple as irritation of the airways. Simply by changing locations and going to a place with less pollution, you do see an impact on wellbeing – oxygen intake increases and the number of harmful particles and aerosols that we breathe decreases.

This is why dense air quality measurement is so important because, over time, we can see the real difference between air quality in different locations. We’ve recently installed a sensor even in Pulau Macan, 90 minutes by boat from Jakarta, as a comparison to the city.

What advice would you give to someone who spends most of their days outdoors within Jabodetabek?

The best advice is to check your air quality before going outside and to take necessary precautions on days where pollution is high. For people who have the ability to move locations or go indoors, that would be strongly encouraged. However, for those who must spend time outdoors, it is recommended to wear a good N-95 mask and to make sure that it creates a proper seal on the face when pollution is high.

Why do you think acknowledging air quality data is the way to go?

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” is a famous quote from Peter Drucker, and the same holds true for air quality. I think people tend to forget we cannot survive longer than three minutes without air. We take it for granted, and only in the last few years has the long-term impact of air pollution on people’s health started to become visible.

If we, as a population, don’t start caring about the quality of the air that we breathe, nobody will do it for us. Air pollution already causes hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to the global economy and medical spending required to care for those affected by air quality issues.

In your opinion, will Jakarta’s air pollution ever subside?

The better question is not will it, but can it? Historically, air pollution was a problem in London in the 1950s, Los Angeles in the 1970s, and China in the 2010s – in each of these places, actionable development was implemented to greatly reduce the levels of air pollution, something that is an always-on challenge.

Interestingly about these instances is that it was the population of these cities that acknowledged air pollution as a problem and started caring about it, even today. The attention and the concern of all of us is needed to start driving change.

If air quality is an issue that we all care about, then yes, I believe it can subside.

How did you get involved with Nafas, Piotr?

After researching a variety of environmental issues around which to build a business, the one that hit home the most was air quality, especially in cities like Jakarta. Air pollution affects 90 percent of the world’s population. There’s a general lack of urgency in addressing this issue.

I had discovered that Nathan Roestandy, my co-founder, was equally concerned and already exploring air quality data in Jakarta. We decided to join forces and build Nafas together because of the size and the complexity of the problem at hand.

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You previously worked as the Chief Marketing Officer at Gojek, building the brand into a household name we’re all aware of nowadays. How has the shift to Nafas been?

The most exciting part about starting a business is the opportunity to build and shape the product from the very beginning. When I joined Gojek in 2016, much of the management team was still directly involved in product development and building, which is where I built my passion for this part of the business.

The other key takeaways were the importance of building strong communities and the patience required to develop these authentic connections. At that time, the concept was still relatively new and there were still a lot of sceptics that needed to be converted.

With Nafas and air quality overall, we are in a greenfield – the awareness of the impact of air pollution on our health is very small. Starting so early is incredibly exciting. We are looking forward to the journey.

You were born and raised in Indonesia. Do you consider yourself a local?

I consider Indonesia home simply because I have spent the majority of my life here, and I am dedicated to building products and solutions that drive positive impact for Indonesians and the country.

If this defines being local, then yes. If the definition of being local involves sambal or durian, then I still have a long way to go!

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

Since high school, I’ve built up a passion for photography. I worked as a professional wedding photographer during my college days in the US. My photography has been exhibited on five different occasions and published in a few books.

Thank you for your time, Piotr! Stay safe and healthy.

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