Haze Management: Providing Timely and Useful Information

2016 International Innovations Awards submission: National Environment Agency, Singapore. 

SCOPE

For the past few decades, transboundary smoke haze from land and forest fires during the traditional dry season (associated with the Southwest Monsoon season between June and October) has been a recurrent feature in the southern ASEAN region. These annual fires were largely the result of land clearing and the practice of “slash and burn” agriculture in Indonesia, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. During the El Niño years in 1994, 1997, 2006, and 2015, the smoke haze was particularly severe. The El Niño typically brings drier and warmer weather conditions in the southern ASEAN region during the Southwest Monsoon season. In the recent past, the haze episodes of 2013 and 2015 were amongst the worst on record.

In particular, in June 2013, smoke haze from Riau Province, central Sumatra was transported towards Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore by the prevailing south-westerly or westerly winds. High pollutant levels were recorded in Singapore —the 24-hour PSI reached 246 on 22 Jun 2013, 24-hour PM2.5 reading reached 314µg/m3 on 20 Jun 2013 and 3-hour PSI reached 401 on 21 Jun 2013.

As the PSI readings soared to unprecedented levels in 2013, there was increasing public demand for:
  • inclusion of PM2.5 in the Pollutants Standard Index to reflect its comparatively  greater severity/threat to personal health;
  • provision of air quality updates with greater frequency;
  • provision of more information on the potential impact of smoke haze on personal and public health, as well as possible measures to mitigate against haze exposure.
Additionally, the National Environment Agency (NEA)1 recognised that there was a need to correct certain misconceptions/misgivings that the public might harbour towards NEA-provided readings.

RESULTS/OUTCOMES

Enhancements to air quality monitoring and reporting
Enhancements to air quality reporting were implemented with the objective of providing pollutant concentrations that would be more reflective of the actual haze situation. Since June 2013, the 24-hour PSI readings were reported on an hourly basis – more frequently than the previous thrice-daily reports. Similarly, concentration levels of the six pollutants (including the 24-hour sulphur dioxide, 24-hour PM10, 24-hour, 24-hour PM2.5, 1-hour nitrogen dioxide, 8-hour carbon monoxide and 8-hour ozone) were reported hourly. On 1 April 2014, NEA implemented the integrated air quality reporting index, where 24-hour PM2.5 was incorporated into the PSI as its sixth pollutant parameter. In addition, the 3-hour PSI was calculated from PM2.5 instead of PM10, as PM2.5 is the main pollutant of concern during smoke haze episodes. The 1-hour PM2.5 concentrations were also made available hourly in order to provide to the public additional information about current air quality.

Providing timely updates via NEA’s official platforms
The heightened interest in air quality as a result of the 2013 haze episodes meant that multiple channels of communication had to be used to provide the public with frequent updates.

Prior to the 2013 haze episode, haze-related information was already available on NEA’s corporate website. There  was, however,  a  need to  ensure  that the information  was  easily accessible to the public. This led to the establishment of the haze micro-site (www.haze.gov.sg) as an official one-stop portal where all haze-related updates and information is hosted.

In addition to the PSI readings and pollutant concentrations, the following information is available on the haze microsite:
  • hotspot information and satellite images
  • air quality forecast for the next 24 hours together with the daily health advisory
  • a comprehensive set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
  • useful information and links to the relevant agencies.
The same content is hosted on the NEA corporate site (www.nea.gov.sg), which serves as an additional source of haze-related information.

In particular, NEA recognised the importance of providing proactive communications and early alerts to members of the public. One of the key initiatives was the provision of a daily haze forecast and the corresponding health advisory for the following day during the haze season. Members of the public are able to make use of the advance information contained within the forecast to plan their activities ahead of time.

To address issues that concern the public, NEA also worked closely with other agencies [including the Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Ministry of Education (MOE) etc.] to coordinate Government responses to the haze situation. The coordination efforts were demonstrated through joint media briefings, joint media releases and the comprehensive information, which is provided in the FAQs.

The joint media release by NEA, MOE, MOH, MOM and the People’s Association (PA) on 24 September 2015 best illustrated the importance of inter-agency coordination in the release of timely updates. The main aspect of the media release was the closure of all primary and secondary schools in response to the unfavourable forecast of possibly ‘hazardous’ haze conditions the next day. The announcement was accompanied by the provision of alternative care arrangements for the affected school-going population, and thus allowed for members of the public to evaluate the developing situation and make the necessary arrangements.

Apart from the microsite and corporate website, NEA also engages the community through other platforms:
  • NEAsg Twitter account pushes hourly PSI readings and weather updates to its followers.
  • NEA’s mobile application, the myENV app” actively disseminates key information through the setting of alerts based on the PSI readings and pollutant concentrations.
  • NEA Facebook offers yet another platform for the dissemination of timely and accurate haze-related information to followers.
These non-traditional platforms were publicised through the mainstream media, as well as advertisements and collateral, which were produced to help the public better understand the PSI and how to use it.

Subsequent enhancements were introduced with the aim of improving user experience on NEA’s various platforms. For example, NEA enhanced the alert notification function on the myENV app, which allows users to define alert settings based on the highest value of the 24-hr PSI, the 3-hr PSI, or both. Regional haze maps were also made available in the app. Another notable enhancement made to the myENV app, haze microsite and corporate website was the display of the 1-hour PM2.5 concentration trend charts. This serves to emphasise the use of the 1-hour PM2.5 average as a more reflective indicator of current air quality, as well as to highlight the volatility of air quality on a finer temporal scale.

Swift factual responses were published on various official channels (such as the websites and NEA’s Facebook page) to address rumours or misinformation found on social media. This was in response to the circulation of non-factual information regarding the PSI by an online minority. This included the allegation that NEA had altered the PSI readings, and also the provision of inaccurate interpretations regarding the computation of the PSI and particulate matter concentrations. The delivery of timely updates served to underscore NEA’s transparency via the provision of factual information and increased the Government’s credibility in managing haze-related queries.

EDUCATION AND OUTREACH

In addition to the rapid correction of false information, NEA recognised that sections of the public held certain misconceptions or misgivings about NEA’s reported air quality information (e.g. visibility as a gauge of air quality). In response, a technical briefing to the media  (print and TV) was organised on 8 October 2015. This helped to address the relationship between humidity, visibility, and air quality, and helped the public better understand how air quality was quantified and reported. The technical briefing also served to inform where key FAQs could be found on the haze microsite and corporate website, but which could have been difficult to understand or inaccessible to certain members of the public. Representatives from NEA were also invited onto Channelnewsasia’s Talking Points programme, where further queries regarding the monitoring and reporting of air quality were fielded. The scheduling of such face-to-face sessions with traditional media outlets thus allowed for the clarification of certain misconceptions to a large audience.

EVALUATION/UNEXPECTED FINDINGS

In December 2015, NEA Customer & Quality Service Department (CQSD) conducted a review comparing the two haze episodes in June 2013 and September 2015 to assess public’s changing expectations of NEA with regard to information on haze. Statistics from September 2015 when PSI was elevated showed increased traffic to the various NEA online and social media platforms.

Resulting from better delivery of timely updates and haze-related information to the public, there was a significant drop in public feedback from a total of 3,960 in June 2013 to 2,074 in September 2015. In June 2013, five peaks were observed with high feedback received over a shorter time interval. The same number of peaks was observed in September 2015, but with relatively less feedback received over a more spread out time interval.

Diagram 1: Number of Haze-related Feedback Received each Day in June 2013 and September 2015
Diagram 1: Number of Haze-related Feedback Received each Day in June 2013 and September 2015

Statistics have shown increased traffic to various NEA online and social media platforms when PSI readings were elevated in September 2015. In particular, the myENV app experienced a significant increase in the average number of monthly active users in 2015 (155,169) compared to 2013 (64,997).

Diagram 2: Number of Active Users for myENV mobile application
Diagram 2: Number of Active Users for myENV mobile application

In September 2015, more than 160,000 myENV mobile users subscribed to the 24-hour PSI hazardous alerts (see Diagram 3).

Diagram 3: Number of myENV PSI alert subscription

Diagram 3: Number of myENV PSI alert subscription

In the same month, traffic to NEA’s Facebook and Twitter increased by 72.7% (monthly new “Likes”) and 23.5% (monthly new followers) respectively. Separately, NEA shares PSI and PM2.5 datasets to external organisations via an Application Programme Interface (API). As of 3 January 2016, there are 798 and 715 subscribers to the PSI and PM2.5 NEA Web APIs respectively.
 
Table 1: Number of registered users to NEA Web APIs (as of 03 January 2016)
Registered users Nowcast 12-hour forecast 3-day outlook Heavy rain alert PSI update PM2.5 update
905 708 683 661 666 798 715

The availability of NEA channels and media helps to better manage members of the public and their expectations, and resulted in a reduced need to contact NEA for information like PSI readings and health advisory.

As part of the efforts under the print and online campaign for haze, NEA Corporate Communications Department (CCD) coordinated the printing and distribution of 1,000 posters to the community clubs around Singapore and all of NEA’s Regional Offices. Online advertisements placed on various platforms (such as the news agencies’ websites and Facebook) between October and November 2015 garnered over 35,000 clicks and over 5 million impressions. These advertisements, which were adapted from poster and print advertisements, directed concerned public to the haze microsite for more information.

The proactive dissemination of information through multiple channels had been helpful in raising public awareness on haze-related issues, including the interpretation of the PSI and the measures that the public could adopt to reduce their exposure to haze. Frequent updates were also provided in the form of media advisories to notify the public about changes to the haze situation.

While haze-related updates have been hosted on the corporate website prior to 2013, NEA recognised the need to enhance its accessibility and to publicise the website for more awareness. Hence, NEA responded promptly by pushing out frequent haze updates via Twitter, Facebook, and the myENV app, as well as by establishing the haze microsite as the one stop portal for haze-related information.

Within NEA, the Pollution Control Department (PCD), with support from Corporate Communications Department (CCD), IT Department (ITD) and Customer & Quality Service Department (CQSD), ensured that all haze related content were updated seamlessly on NEA’s official social media platforms. The contents included the following topics, which were jointly prepared by PCD, Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS), Environmental Health Institute (EHI) and Environment Technology Office (ETO):

Daily air quality forecast for the following day and health advisory during haze season
  • Hourly updates on PSI readings and pollutant concentrations
  • Hotspot information and satellite images
  • Practical tips to manage indoor air quality during haze
  • Information on the suppliers of portable air cleaners and cleaning devices for buildings
  • Factual responses to counter any rumours and misinformation
The close cooperation between various departments within NEA contributed to the effective communication on haze.

Key issues of public concern were identified at the inter-agency level based on lessons drawn from the past haze seasons. These issues spanned across different sectors including those under the purview of other agencies. To address these issues, NEA collated a comprehensive set of FAQs on haze, which was jointly prepared by key agencies including NEA, MOH and MOM.

In addition, joint press statements were issued to reiterate key messages to advise the public on what they could do to cope with the situation. Joint press conferences and media briefings were organised to convey major decisions (such as school closure). This demonstrates that the Government is coordinated and in control of the situation.

Several members of the public have written in to thank NEA for providing updated haze information through the various channels, which kept them well informed of the haze situation. One Mr  Stouffs commented: 

“I greatly appreciate the MyENV app giving me the ability to always get up to  date information on the weather and the haze. Thank you.” 

A Mr Galistan also said: 

“I want to commend the NEA for the hard work you all have done and doing your best to provide the best information to the public. I hope you all realise how important your team is to all of us living in Singapore. Please keep up the great work and strive to serve us better.” 

A few were also grateful as the haze information provided necessary guidance on the additional measures they could take to keep themselves and their family members protected during the haze period. In particular, one Mr Behdad said: 

“We particularly found that your extensive and clear information on haze levels last year was impressive and helped us protect our kids during that time.”

NEXT STEPS

NEA will continue to keep pace with ground sensing and gather invaluable public feedback on the recent measures introduced. This will allow for the development of further enhancements or measures that could arise as a result of yet to be identified issues.
NOTES

1    The National Environment Agency (NEA) is the leading public organization responsible for improving and sustaining a clean and green environment in Singapore.