Putting Knowledge to Work
Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Abhilasha Purwar is using data and artificial intelligence to fight against air pollution.
For Abhilasha Purwar, learning simply for learning’s sake is a noble, worthwhile goal.
“I’m a very nerdy person and I have always believed in the pursuit of knowledge for no other thing. Not for a high salary or a job, but just for the pursuit of knowledge in its pure form,” she says.
And, Purwar’s education and career journey so far exemplify the saying, “Knowledge is power.”
Purwar is the founder and chief executive officer of Blue Sky Analytics, a Gurugram-based geospatial data intelligence start-up. She began her post-secondary education with a B.Tech in applied chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology (Banaras Hindu University), Varanasi, and an integrated master of technology. She passed up high-paying jobs to become a consultant on air pollution policies to Government of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and central and state pollution control boards.
For Purwar, though, “grad school was always part of the plan.”
She stumbled upon the Fulbright-Nehru program and applied for a Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship, which enabled her to go to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from 2015 to 2017. She went to study environmental policies, but she also explored her other educational interests. Purwar ended up focusing a lot on macroeconomics and capital markets “because they sort of run the world,” she says.
Purwar returned to India in 2018, keen to do something of her own. She brought with her the understanding that “data has the capacity to change an entire ecosystem,” and a desire to do something about the air pollution in India.
“We realized there was data on pollution everywhere, but not a soul to analyze it,” says Purwar. “We’re building machinery that can analyze what’s out there and do it in a very automated fashion.”
Blue Sky Analytics combines data from satellite resources and ground sensors to create an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven geospatial data refinery. The start-up offers BreeZo, an air quality data app, which aims to raise awareness and help users minimize their air pollution exposure. It is a freemium app—available for free for regular users and at a subscription-based pricing model for power users like enterprises, researchers and regulators. “We launched the beta version of BreeZo last year, which got more than 5,000 users with $0 spent in marketing,” says Purwar. She and her team are currently revamping the design and improving the codebase to relaunch it as a vernacular air quality data app.
Blue Sky Analytics is also developing Zuri, an AI-enabled platform to allow users, like compliance authorities, to monitor and regulate farm and forest fires. “In five years, we are confident that Blue Sky will be a global geospatial data intelligence company,” says Purwar, “and we would be one of the leading providers of environmental data on air and water quality and source pollution.”
Blue Sky Analytics has two goals, says Purwar. First, to hold entities accountable for India’s air pollution by using analysis of satellite data to reveal who exactly are polluting and how much pollution they’re generating. Second, to enable the residents of polluted cities and regions to take precautions. To know, for example, that on a day when pollution is high, they need to keep children inside, next to an air purifier, and not take them outside to play.
To achieve these goals, Purwar says, she wants Blue Sky Analytics to take a different approach than some nongovernmental and research organizations that try to tackle the air pollution problem by stopping industry. She sees air pollution as a “system design problem,” which needs to be addressed through more efficient technology.
Purwar feels that her commitment to investing her time and resources in fighting air pollution comes directly from the investments people made in her—through her Fulbright-Nehru fellowship in particular—that let her gain the knowledge and confidence she needed to come this far.
“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes from it, that’s like, ‘Wait, so many people have trusted me to solve problems, somebody paid for my education at Yale, every month that I was studying I got a check to live, and that’s a very big privilege,’ ” she says. “People trusted in me, and now it’s my time” to pay it forward.
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.