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Meiling Gao: “It all starts with public awareness”

It all starts with public awareness. The more people that understand the importance of air quality and begin to advocate for clean air, the sooner we will implement the policy and technological solutions that are needed to begin to improve air quality worldwide. And the more people understand how air pollution impacts their health, the […]

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It all starts with public awareness. The more people that understand the importance of air quality and begin to advocate for clean air, the sooner we will implement the policy and technological solutions that are needed to begin to improve air quality worldwide. And the more people understand how air pollution impacts their health, the more they will begin to demand air quality data that is local and relevant to them.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Meiling Gao.

Meiling Gao is the Chief Operating Officer at Clarity Movement Co. where she is building relationships with government and corporate partners to transform how air quality data is collected and used. She was previously a USAID Global Development Fellow in Colombia and a Fulbright Scholar in China where she conducted research on the impacts of urban development on air quality and health.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Since starting my work in air quality and health, I’ve appreciated how similar the human stories and concerns are around air pollution no matter where you are in the world. The specifics around sources, types of pollutants, policies, etc. may differ but the health concerns, the need to take care of families and communities, the need to feel heard, and the desire to live in a healthy environment cross cultures and languages. This common goal really does help the clean air movement by increasing the need and desire for collaboration in the air quality and more broadly the climate space.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Leaning into the unknown and finding humor in tough situations have always served me well. Always learning keeps work and life interesting no matter where I go.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

People are often surprised to learn that air pollution is the leading environmental cause of death globally (and fifth among all causes of death), contributing to 4.2 million premature, preventable deaths every year by WHO estimates. We find it unacceptable that a preventable environmental condition causes so much global suffering, which drove us to found Clarity Movement Co.

We’re changing how air pollution is monitored and managed — making it easier, cheaper, and more accessible to measure air quality at the local level. The future of air quality monitoring — we’re calling it Air Quality Monitoring 2.0 — is made possible with new low-cost environmental sensors that are small, compact, and easy to use. But we’re not trying to replace the existing monitoring technologies out there but rather, supplement them and use this technology to fill in the gaps.

These existing monitors that make up our existing networks are big, increasingly expensive to operate and maintain, and are already often decades old. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, released a report in December 2020 highlighting that US air pollution monitoring networks have fallen into disrepair due to aging equipment and budgetary constraints.

Because of their size and cost, traditional monitors can’t be installed everywhere but only at select sites. This was effective for reducing the types of pollutants that were most harmful to public health during the late 20th century — think coal plants and refineries. But today’s air quality threats tend to be more localized in nature — for example emissions from cars — and require more localized data to help solve.

As a flood of evidence-based research continues to unveil the massive public health costs of local air pollution, public awareness is growing and citizens are demanding access to better, real-time air quality data. In 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that citizens have the right to go to court to challenge how authorities monitor air pollution. While increased awareness of air quality issues is undoubtedly a positive development, it comes with increased public accountability for air quality managers.

The future of air quality monitoring networks, what we call Air Quality Monitoring 2.0, presents an elegant solution to this problem by encouraging air quality managers to adopt new technologies that complement their existing air quality monitoring infrastructure. This means they can continue to use the technology they are legally obligated to maintain while using low-cost, highly-scalable sensors to complement existing regulatory air quality monitoring equipment and fill in the spatial and temporal gaps that exist with these networks.

The best part is that these low-cost sensors are so affordable that air quality managers can deploy hundreds of sensors at a fraction of the cost — the annual cost of a Clarity sensor is less than 1% of the cost to own and operate a traditional reference monitoring station. So they can save money while expanding air quality monitoring coverage with this approach, which we have worked with cities such as London and Paris to implement.

If we want to make a dent in the 4.2 million preventable deaths caused by air pollution each year, this has to start with awareness. The only way to spur people to use their power as citizens to drive change in this space is through education, and that education must be founded on verifiable, relevant air quality data.

How do you think this will change the world?

We’re making air quality data more accessible by making it easier and cheaper to measure it. Governments at all levels are facing budget constraints. These new technologies allow them to do more with less by modernizing our air monitoring networks.

And we’re also democratizing air quality monitoring — it’s not just something limited to governments and academics now. Communities are organizing to set up their own monitoring networks that can help fill the gaps in understanding air pollution at the local level, especially in underserved communities where there may not be any air monitoring infrastructure nearby.

Having more accessible air quality data can also garner local support for action around climate policies. Climate policy impacts may not be felt for years, but air pollution in your neighborhood is often something that you can see, breathe, and feel in terms of immediate health impacts. Policies targeted at reducing greenhouse gases can often also target and reduce air pollutants in the air we breathe.

During our transition to a net-zero emissions economy, we need to make sure that already disadvantaged communities don’t continue to bear the burden of climate change. And climate policies such as cap and trade have historically ignored or not measured the impacts on marginalized people. As our current air monitoring network is failing disadvantaged communities, access to these low-cost sensors has helped fill in a gap and allowed these community groups to organize and start monitoring the air themselves. It also gives them more of a seat at the table with policymakers to make sure their concerns are heard.

Solving the global air pollution and the climate crises will require a new coalition beyond just policymakers and scientists, so making air quality data more accessible for all is a first step to creating a more equitable future.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

As with any technology, I do think about who we are trying to serve and what our ultimate goal is. Having more monitors out in the world is a good use of resources in some cases but not always useful to just have more data. There also needs to be the political will, a coalition of governments, communities, scientists, and citizens who can turn that information into effective action. Focusing purely on the data without thinking about the context of the communities in which these data are situated sometimes leads us to optimize for technology and data rather than action to improve our environment and health.

Was there a “tipping point” that led the company to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Clarity was founded by a group of students with backgrounds in engineering and environmental science out of UC Berkeley in 2014. Since there wasn’t an easy to use low-cost particulate matter (PM) sensor out there, we decided to make our own. This was an intriguing engineering challenge but once we had our prototypes and started field testing, we realized while the challenge to build and manufacture a functional and easy to use sensor was intriguing, we were more interested in how this technology could change environmental monitoring.

To do that, we had to make the technology easy to use out of the box and to operate independently so it could be deployed anywhere easily. By reducing all the time needed to figure out how to use and install an air quality monitor and making it easy to access the data, we’re making it easier to focus on the implications of the data, rather than figuring out how to get the data. So that’s how the Clarity Node-S, originally released towards the end of 2017, came to be.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

It all starts with public awareness. The more people that understand the importance of air quality and begin to advocate for clean air, the sooner we will implement the policy and technological solutions that are needed to begin to improve air quality worldwide. And the more people understand how air pollution impacts their health, the more they will begin to demand air quality data that is local and relevant to them.

The other element is having some successful projects to point to as a proof of concept for other cities — and this is an area we are making headway in. For example, our partnership with London represents the first time that a city has formally adopted low-cost sensors using public funding to holistically integrate them as part of their air quality monitoring system. We believe that London can serve as a blueprint for other cities that want to learn how they can leverage low-cost sensors to cost-effectively increase the resolution of their air quality monitoring data (and perhaps even save some money in the process).

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

This is similar to my personal philosophy that I mentioned earlier, but acknowledging that there is always room for improvement and growth has been valuable for me personally and also as a core value at Clarity. We’re working in a space that is actively evolving so we need to evolve just as rapidly with the needs.

And during this evolution, it is very powerful to know that all of us in the company — and the entire air quality industry — are working toward the same goal of reducing air pollution even if the pathway to get there may change. This creates an atmosphere of trust, an element that is essential for any organization to function effectively (especially when dealing with a remote work environment!).

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Clarity helps our customers reduce economic losses and save lives by enabling actionable air quality insights for revolutionary air quality management. Municipalities, industries, and communities pay an annual subscription fee to access our turn-key air quality management solution. Our proprietary, state-of-the-art air quality measurement instrument, the Clarity Node, scales seamlessly to enable networks of dozens to hundreds of sensors. Once deployed, our hardware works seamlessly with the Clarity Cloud to deliver calibrated, accurate, and high-resolution air quality data.

Clarity is the leading low-cost sensor provider, with the Node-S deployed in more than 50 countries across 6 continents thanks to our global distribution network. We were also selected by London and Paris to power two of the largest air quality monitoring networks in Europe through our Sensing-as-a-Service model. This high-growth market is only just beginning, and we believe that early adopters such as London and Paris will serve as a blueprint for the deployment of affordable, high-resolution air quality monitoring in cities and communities around the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

For more information and the latest news from Clarity, readers can visit our blog at clarity.io or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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