Makerere wins USD$1.3m grant from Google to monitor urban air quality

Makerere wins USD$1.3m grant from Google to monitor urban air quality
The DVCFA-Prof. William Bazeyo (Centre) flanked by AirQo Project Lead-Dr. Engineer Bainomugisha (Left) and Ag. Manager Communication and International Relations-Dr. Muhammad Kiggundu Musoke (Right) addresses the Media during the Briefing on 8th May 2019, CoCIS, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda

Makerere University’s computer science department has won $1.3 million (about Shs 4.9 billion) to boost their project seeking to track and forecast air pollution in major cities.

It is listed among the 20 winners of the Google Artificial Intelligence Impact Challenge 2019, an open initiative to fund non-profits, social enterprises and research institutions from around the world that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to address societal challenges.

The winners, selected from a pool of more than 2,600 applications, will get a combined $25 million, mentoring from AI experts at Google, credit and consulting from Google Cloud, and go through a new accelerator program. Each of the projects was assessed for impact, feasibility, and responsible use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the use of computer systems/machines to process collected or forecasted data to come up with solutions or processes that would otherwise be impossible or harder for the human brain.

Under the project dubbed AirQo, the department of computer science aims to develop low-cost tools and methods that can be used by city and regulatory authorities to do regular monitoring of air quality in urban areas.

According to Makerere University’s lead researcher Dr Engineer Bainomugisha, 50 air quality monitoring kits have already been deployed in Kampala and other urbanized parts of the country. The solar-powered air monitors, send data to their servers telling the pollution levels across the country.

He said that the grant will help to scale up their existing air quality monitoring coverage and make AI a key tool to improve air quality monitoring, analysis, forecasting and awareness.

“We are thrilled to be receiving a grant from Google to support the AirQo project that aims to contribute to improved air quality in Kampala and other urban towns. With little resources, we have demonstrated that it’s possible to build and deploy a robust network of low-cost air quality monitors across Kampala city,” Bainomugisha said.

He added that the Google grant will make a huge difference to the project and allow it to truly scale up the network to become an effective resource for all Ugandan citizens and policymakers.”

Next week, representatives from the Makerere AirQo project will travel to San Francisco to dive into the execution of the project. During the five days, all the 20 winning projects will join Google AI experts, project managers and the start-up specialists from Google’s launchpad accelerator for the program’s six months, from May to November 2019.

Makerere wins USD$1.3m grant from Google to monitor urban air quality
Makerere University AirQo research team pose for a group picture at their research lab.

Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year. World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe in air containing high levels of pollutants. 91 per cent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits of 12.6 micrograms including Kampala.

Air pollution in Kampala is mainly caused by the burning of rubbish in the open, unpaved roads, and heavy toxic gases from vehicles.

The key hotspots with high spikes of polluted air have been identified in Mbale, Kasese, and Kampala. Prof William Bazeyo, the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of finance and administration says Makerere has had several other innovations that have pushed its rankings up on the continent.

“This money coming in from Google will definitely have an impact to Uganda especially now that we have more children battling lung illnesses arising out of a polluted environment. In fact, Google hasn’t made a mistake. Choosing Makerere is the right thing to do, Prof. Bazeyo said.