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Decentralized & Incentivized Air Quality Monitoring - PlanetWatch CEO, Claudio Parrinello Interview

This article is a lightly-edited summary of the key takeaways from Claudio Parrinello’s appearance on our latest #Algorandstartups Ask Me Anything series. You can watch/listen to the replay here.

Claudio Parrinello was formerly a research physicist and set up his own consultancy firm near Geneva. In 2005, Claudio joined CERN and held various roles including leading the Knowledge & Technology Transfer unit. After leaving CERN in 2011, Claudio co-founded his first high-tech startup in France. Later on, he became interested in blockchain and started PlanetWatch together with five co-founders. Claudio’s vision is to tackle societal issues such as environmental monitoring by leveraging blockchain technology.

What is PlanetWatch’s origin story?

Across my professional life has been a passion for innovation. 20 years ago, I stopped focusing on scientific innovation and moved into business and technology innovation. About four years ago, I kind of fell in love with blockchain technologies because of its absolutely disruptive innovation potential.

Last year, I had an idea to leverage blockchain technology to add value to environmental monitoring, which is another passion of mine. This is by and large the origin of PlanetWatch. I would say to aspiring entrepreneurs, just follow your passion. That's the starting point for every project.

Tell us more about PlanetWatch and the industry you're operating in.

PlanetWatch’s mission is to generate, contribute, and analyse valuable data into the challenge of environmental monitoring worldwide. We aim to help mitigate global health hazards, and also raise awareness of environmental challenges across the general population. At the moment, we are focusing on air quality monitoring as this is a major health issue worldwide. There are 7 million premature deaths every year related to air pollution, and this was the data before the Covid pandemic.

Following the onset of the pandemic, there has been even more discussion about air quality because this is linked to Covid in a few ways. On the one hand, long term exposure to air pollution is linked to increased mortality rates from Covid. On the other hand, there is increased risk of infection in crowded indoor places because of aerosols (very tiny droplets) which can float in the air for hours. It's a major global health issue.

One specific problem that PlanetWatch wants to fix is outdoor air quality monitoring. There’s simply not enough outdoor air quality monitoring devices in the world because air quality can have very strong local fluctuations. With the sparse mesh of sensors available today, it's not possible to detect and analyse many pollution hotspots, especially across cities. The way you fix this is to deploy a very dense mesh of sensors; the best way to do this in a fast and cost effective way is to engage local residents.

As for indoor air quality, there is simply no controlled indoor air quality monitoring worldwide. There is a lot of work to be done as indoor air quality may be regarded as a proxy for the risk of infection these days.

Why blockchain? How are you leveraging Algorand?

I was lucky enough to meet Algorand Founder, Silvio Micali, in Italy last year. It was quite an experience to learn more about Algorand from him. Later on, I had a chance to explain the PlanetWatch project to him, which he liked from day one and was very supportive.

We use the Algorand blockchain essentially for three purposes:

  1. To build a global tamper proof ledger of our quality data.

  2. Track all contributions to our ledger. All the data streams received from sensors get validated and written on the blockchain.

  3. Reward contribution through our utility token.

Some of the key reasons we chose Algorand are:

  • Fast, secure, green blockchain: We need a blockchain which is both very fast and secure, and we also want a green blockchain. As an environmental related project, it makes no sense to use a blockchain that uses a very computer-intensive and energy-intensive consensus mechanism. On a general level, the very smart consensus mechanism developed by Algorand and its overall great performance is very much in the spirit of environmental monitoring and preserving our planet. So it's just perfect for us.

  • Algorand Standard Assets (ASA) and atomic transfers: On a more technical level, there are a lot of features built into layer one that we use, such as the possibility to create assets. We do create quite a few assets on the blockchain; we have a proprietary utility token and we also create non fungible tokens (NFTs) for each sensor, which is the network. Linking a sensor to an NFT facilitates operations in many ways. The possibility of having two atomic swaps is another very important point for us.

  • Partner ecosystem: The Algorand ecosystem has been developing a lot of useful tools which facilitate adoption. We are also developing a very good partnership with Rand labs, getting support with tools such as APIs from them. Algorand is a great technology, and is a very supportive and friendly ecosystem where we have managed to develop synergies already.

What support have you received from Algorand and the community?

We managed to get our MVP up and running fairly quickly because of the great support from the Algorand developer community. We got a lot of support both from Algorand Inc. and from the Algorand Foundation in different ways.

We managed to deploy all the features we need quite easily and get all our technology bricks linked together nicely. We have of course the IoT-enabled sensors, mobile apps and web apps to display and process the data. We then implemented all the software to write it on the blockchain, to issue the tokens and to close the circle. I can't even count all the ways we benefited from Algorand.

What's important for us is that on one hand, you have a great technology and great technical developer community and on the other hand, you have an ecosystem which appears to be growing very quickly. There are a number of tools to facilitate adoption for non-crypto people, who are our real target. We don't want to be just a niche crypto product, but a grassroots project for all the environmentally aware people worldwide.

What is your long term vision for PlanetWatch?

Our ultimate goal is to improve environmental monitoring and mitigate health risks worldwide.

With the current state of air quality monitoring, governmental agencies reuse information. They can say “tomorrow, the forecast for this area is poor so let's shut down all polluting vehicles or put serious limitations to vehicle traffic.” These are very high impact measures and are not always effective for a number of reasons. The improvement we want to bring into air quality monitoring related to the density of sensors in the city enables the detection of local hotspots, which can occur one or two blocks away from a place where quality is decent. If you get to this level of granularity, you can take mitigation measures which are both effective and low impact. For example, it might be enough to reroute a bus to improve air quality in a narrow street. That is the kind of detailed level of information we want to achieve in terms of outdoor quality monitoring.

My long term vision is that environmental challenges will be tackled effectively, not only as a top down process from politicians. While that's very important, it's also very important at the grassroots level for local residents to feel they own the environment where they live in, feel that is their duty and have the possibility to take action and help in a global effort.

Our project is at the cornerstone of citizen science and actual science in the sense that we aim for a very in depth analysis of the data. Our biggest innovation is collecting data by leveraging the population. The long term vision aims at increased global awareness of environmental issues, increased participation in monitoring, and ultimately, increased knowledge which can be leveraged to solve problems or to mitigate them at least.

Can you tell us about your recent sensor deployment in Italy?

Deploying actual sensors around a city is quite challenging in a lockdown pandemic setting. We discovered that our grassroots-based approach using the help of citizens rather than local government is quite effective in pandemic times. At this time, if we just relied on the corporate or government partners to deploy equipment, it will be much harder than what it has been. The fact that we can deploy on private premises, with just a little goodwill from the owners, makes our installations possible despite all the restrictions we have at the moment.

We managed to place 50 sensors in the city of Taranto, a mid-sized city in the south of Italy which is possibly the city in Italy with the most severe pollution challenges. We’re quite happy with that and are in the process of testing all the data and validating the system. We hope to release preliminary data soon.

As another priority, we targeted Milan in the north of Italy, a very important city which has been very badly hit by the pandemic. We have about 80 sensors or more active in Milan as we speak. Thanks also to a local partner, another startup, which was very effective in creating a local community of people keen to deploy sensors.

Hopefully, the pandemic will ease up a little bit and enable us to deploy more easily elsewhere. But again, one point of strength of our project is that we are a community-based project. In order for us to deploy sensors in a city, we essentially need a local support community. Even now we are talking to a number of partners and are planning developments in other cities in Europe and elsewhere.

As long as there's a community of people who want to engage, help out and connect sensors to our network, then all the data processing happens seamlessly. I'm hoping that we'll be able to make at least one more significant deployment before the end of the year in Europe. And then we are open to talk to a wide range of potential stakeholders who may well be willing to help us out in this global endeavour.

What did you think about participating in the Algorand Europe Accelerator pilot program?

I will say that incubators and mentors are very important. As an entrepreneur, you tend to be pretty much alone most of the time. It's very hard to be able to share issues and get advice unless you need it and look for it. Being incubated by Algorand Europe Accelerator has been already quite beneficial to us because we were put in touch with great mentors and we had very important discussions with a few high profile people. We see that it’s also a gateway to getting access and in some cases, even some financial support, towards leading services for our operations. We expect and are already seeing a top notch network of industry leaders, a broad range of opportunities for pilots and projects, as well as investors.

But it's not just investors, the most important thing is mentoring. It's always very important to have the possibility to brainstorm and bounce ideas back and forth with experienced people and get another perspective on what you're doing. I believe mentoring is very important for startups.

Mentoring is one thing, and then there is support in growing your business network. If you have a great idea for solving a real problem, you have to check how great the idea actually is, and then you have to prove that you can deliver. That's where a network of business partners comes in. It's crucial.

What advice would you give to new startups/founders looking to build on Algorand?

Go for it if it makes sense from the point of view of your project. Don't hesitate to seek support and advice from the Algorand people, because they're very, very friendly. There is a very good technical developer community that you can get in touch with quite easily. The Algorand management team is also very accessible. The results are there with the Algorand Ambassador programme which is very useful because you may be able to get in touch with an Algorand representative, which speaks your native language and understands your exact context.

Incidentally, we are about to launch an ambassador programme for PlanetWatch itself and it will be pretty much emulated on the Algorand Ambassador Program as it’s so effective.

So my advice is, don't stay on your own, don't feel isolated. Get in touch with people in the ecosystem who can provide advice and help. Get in touch with us if you like, incidentally, and speak up. And let us let people help you.


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