Data contributes to clean air in Skopje

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Pedestrians walk through the smoggy streets of Skopje, North Macedonia. ©UNDP/Sumaya Agha

Air pollution is one of the most serious environmental challenges in the urban areas of North Macedonia, particularly during winter. More than half the country’s population lives in the three biggest cities — Skopje, Bitola and Tetovo — which in 2017 were all ranked among the top ten most polluted cities in Europe.

Several studies have shown that household heating is the biggest culprit.

The problem has been growing steadily worse and residents have had enough. There’ve been public protests and intense social media debate. Political parties are using air pollution as one of the main issues during pre-election campaigns.

Prior to UNDP’s intervention, authorities were in action-reaction mode, making ad hoc decisions that were not achieving results. And the private sector and citizens were not included in decision-making.

UNDP carried out a comprehensive door-to-door questionnaire on 5,044 households in Skopje. This generated geo-tagged micro-level data that were uploaded in the locally developed beta version of the mobile app Placeformer. In only three weeks, in January 2017, we did — for the first time in the country on such large sample — comprehensive research in all 17 urban and rural municipalities in Skopje Valley.

This mobile app also provides for visualization of data which are presented on a web site where local government of Skopje can find micro-level data about how people heat their homes and what factors influenced their choices of fuel.

The data showed an unusual correlation between air pollution and solid waste management in the city. We collected information about the Roma people (Skopje has the largest Roma community in Europe) who collect waste for burning as well as for heating their homes. This is highly polluting, but also extremely dangerous for people’s health — indoor air pollution is a much larger threat than outdoor pollution. Stories from 78 waste collectors were gathered providing new insights and valuable information.

The data was used to develop computer-based foresight scenarios of how to address the pollution from household heating. After that came a comprehensive strategy which the government used to develop the National Clean Air Plan. A new private sector partnership was created to invest in concrete measures to improve Skopje’s air quality.

The results of the study helped to re-shape the public debate around the sources of pollution and accelerated, to some extent, the response to the problem.

It influenced policy making processes and helped authorities to make informed decisions about budget allocations. Skopje introduced new subsidies for things such as cleaner technology air conditioners.

The public can also use the data to pressure local governments to take actions based on evidence. And at even smaller levels, micro-level data can provide useful information for smaller communities or even individual streets.

The data has also provided for the possibility of joint actions among different institutions such as the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning and local governments, who can work together to support low income families and single headed families to make safer decisions.

One of the biggest surprises of the survey was that household income is not the determining factor when choosing a type of heating. Many higher income families are opting for wood because they lacked information about better, cleaner options.

The Skopje study showed that getting data is neither costly nor time consuming. UNDP was able to create a huge dataset in just three weeks, with minimal funds. We analyzed behavioural patterns based on citizens’ education, income, and gender, and help authorities to use this information to reshape policies and make truly informed decisions.

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