The Final Few Breaths on Breathe Easy 2023: Some Reflections

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For part of this summer and fall, I had the opportunity to be a community organizer for Ecology Ottawa’s Breathe Easy Project. Breathe Easy, in its third year, is Ottawa’s largest citizen-led science project. Before I started, I did not consider myself a scientist. Neither did many of the volunteers that made this project possible. But I do know that just like climate justice and political advocacy, science works best when it is people-powered. 

Throughout the months of June to October, 46 sites across Ottawa were measured four times, totalling to 184 volunteer shifts that were fulfilled by scientists in our communities. The sites were spread out all across the city, in public parks, at schools, at bus stops - places community members spend their time in their mornings and evenings. Some locations were in areas with many trees and few cars, and others were right beside the highway. These sites provided a basis for creating a fulsome picture of what Ottawa’s air quality looks like.

People-power made this project happen. 65 volunteers took part in the monitoring, going to the far reaches of Ottawa by bus, bike, foot, and car. They familiarized themselves with the monitors, learned how to set them up, and recorded all the data, both quantitative and qualitative. A parallel team of volunteer data analysts worked with our partners at Carleton University, Dr. Thomas Walker and Emelia Ndebugri, in order to make sense of the data. There were so many data points sent their way, and they have worked incredibly hard to put together the data in a way that is accessible. At this stage, socioeconomic demographics were included in the analysis to give us a comprehensive understanding of the layers of air quality. This project could not have been possible without the hard work of our volunteers.

Citizen science does not come without its challenges. With few monitors and multiple volunteer shifts a day, it was sometimes a challenge to make sure volunteers had all the equipment they needed, at times that worked for them, in a city where getting around is not an easy task. I spent a lot of time doing work on an OC Transpo bus (mostly waiting for the bus) or biking around on inconsistent bike paths while delivering air quality monitors to volunteers. Volunteers expressed similar barriers to monitoring efficiently. Additionally, there were times when the equipment didn’t work perfectly and a shift had to be redone. Many shifts had to be cancelled because the monitors could not be in the rain, and others were cancelled because volunteers could not be outside due to wildfire smoke. Yet despite these challenges, it is clear to me that citizen science is a way to get community members of all levels of experience engaged in a project.

This project was and continues to be necessary as Ottawa has only one air quality monitor, which is controlled by the Ontario provincial government. As we can tell based on the variation in data just collected at the multiple sites across the city, one air quality monitor does not give us much useful data for our everyday lives, especially for people who rely on air quality data to determine their levels of day-to-day activity. Children, seniors, and immunocompromised people rely on this data every day to see how much harm the air around them will cause. Without thorough data, we are letting down our community. 

The responsibility for continued and increased air quality monitoring, as well as the necessary actions to reduce air pollution, lies with various levels of government. Our policy asks have been clear in our past two reports, and will be reiterated to Ottawa City Council again in our 2023 report. This year, we engaged with four councillors, who came out to monitor in their ward and learned about the Breathe Easy Project. A big thank you goes out to Councillors Jessica Bradley, Sean Devine, Laine Johnson, and Theresa Kavanaugh. We hope you continue to talk about the importance of clean air with your fellow councillors and work on real change in our community.

Councillor Theresa Kavanagh with Ecology Ottawa Staff monitoring air quality for the Breathe Easy Campaign.

A big thank you goes to the others who worked on this project. Alex Neufeldt was the Breathe Easy Organizer before myself and was a huge asset to setting up the project. Camryn Rhedey has been a star in report writing, and Dan Rutabingwa Gakire was essential in overseeing the project and managing the report. And the Carleton data team, Dr. Walker and Emilia, have been crucial to make sense of the data. 

Overall, my favourite part of contributing to this project was working with the essential volunteers and learning about why they wanted to volunteer with the project. I got the chance to work with activists and parents, healthcare workers and dedicated bikers, lifelong volunteers and students. Some folks had worked on the previous two editions of the Breathe Easy project and knew exactly why it was important. Others were drawn to the program because they could smell and see wildfire smoke in their community for the first time this summer and were compelled to act. I want to extend my immense gratitude to all the people who helped out with this project, volunteering their time, labour, and expertise to make Ottawa a cleaner city to breathe in. Thank you all. 

The final report will be coming near the end of the month, inclusive of all our findings as well as the policy asks derived from these findings. Please stay tuned for the report coming out soon! 

Gemma Patey, Breathe Easy Community Organizer


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