Skip to main content

Take a deep breath - The Malta Air Quality Project

Little did Cecilia Olivera-Hillway - US maker, Illustrator and Educator - imagine that her project, looking at the effect of wildfires in her community, would be used to raise awareness of air quality issues on islands in the Mediterranean!

But that’s exactly what happened… so how did it come about? Well, let’s start at the very beginning…

Cecilia lives on the West Coast of the United States, a region notoriously plagued with destructive wildfires, responsible for the devastation of acres of land and affecting people’s health through smoke inhalation – and has a big impact on air quality.

It was therefore a no-brainer when in 2021 we approached Cecilia to ask if she could create a project to raise awareness of the importance of air quality. She decided to create a visible way to show the air quality level of the day, about the Air Quality Index – the standard used in the US to grade and report the levels. This way, people could make informed decisions based on the level displayed i.e. close the windows, restrict physical activities etc – which are serious considerations for those more vulnerable, or elderly people within the community.  Being an Educator she also wanted a project that would appeal to and engage young students, hoping to inspire them as young makers.

Breathe Better Bear

Birth of a Bear

To inject some humour, as well as drive home what is a serious subject, Cecilia decided to base her project’s creative around a bear – paying homage to Smokey the Bear, used in the States as an education symbol around wildfires, to help drive engagement.

Among the materials used Cecilia included the Environmental Sensor Development Kit (ESDK), which incorporates ‘plug & play’ modules, alongside a range of sensors especially designed to monitor carbon monoxide and particulates, plus an external API. The data gathered would allow Cecilia’s project to make a forecast of the air quality.

Visually, the design features a bear which indicates the air quality levels through the movement of a paw acting as a pointer, alongside relevant facial expressions appropriate to the level displayed – and so, the ‘Breathe Better Bear’ was born.

You can read the full details about how Cecilia created the Breathe Better Bear here.

The journey begins

The Breathe Better Bear evolved from the Air Quality project, launched through DesignSpark, who donated 50 ESDK kits to makers and influencers to work on the challenge.

Impressed with the projects coming through, which also included the ‘Good Air Canary’ created by inventor Jude Pullen (more details on his project can be found here), DesignSpark decided to take examples, including the Breathe Better Bear and showcase them at the forthcoming RS Group conference, being held in Malta.

Delegates would see real-time air quality levels in the environment, displayed through the data gathered by the devices.

Surely an idyllic island in the Mediterranean wouldn’t have cause to worry about its air quality, right?

Wrong!... It was recently reported in The Times Malta that pollution on the island was among the worst in Europe, having the fourth highest levels of particles in the air compared to other member states¹.  The biggest source of this pollution was vehicle emissions in urbanised areas.

children in Malta learning about air quality

Back to school

This presented a wider opportunity to help make a difference within the Maltese community - and help offset some of the CO² caused by the delegates travelling to the conference.

So, in collaboration with our distributor in Malta, ‘CS Technologies’ and their CEO Tony Borg - who helped build the Breathe Better Bear devices for use at the conference - it was decided to look at how these units could also be used to form an educational initiative.

First things first. To gauge interest and support Tony contacted the Ministry of Education in Malta, specifically the Directorate for Learning & Assessment Programmes, responsible for STEM subjects. We proposed to install the Breathe Better Bear in a selection of schools and monitor the classroom data.

In place for 6 – 12 months, this would raise awareness of the environment to students, interacting with the monitors that display the air quality level relating to the immediate vicinity, as well as allowing them to collaborate and collect data from other schools to compare the Maltese islands.

How would the schools benefit? Not only does it make air quality a talking point among students, but it also stimulates discussions with the Ministry of Education around the results and any actions that may be necessary. Presented engagingly, schools can demonstrate how the use of technology and innovation can be used to help solve real-world challenges, hoping to inspire students to create other projects.

The green light to go ahead was given!

And so it began…

Schools were selected to take part and the Breathe Better Bear was installed in common areas, making it easier for students to interact and visibly monitor their data. Gathering the readings over time, the students and teachers alike, were able to gain valuable insight on what is happening in their local atmosphere, with the opportunity to compare the findings with other schools across the islands. It also acts as an alert for when air quality spikes to unhealthy levels – something that before now went undetected.

Students, such as those at St Ignatius College Handaq Middle School, are using the data during lessons to focus on climate change and discuss the issues of CO², as well as considering the effects of particulate matter found in the air.

Another example involves students at St Benedict College Kirkop Secondary School, who have used the project to take another look at their environment.  They are now looking to incorporate it within their Green School Travel Plan and assess whether their location near Luqa airport makes a difference to the school’s air quality readings.

The teachers have found that the project has been an excellent way to raise awareness of air quality to the younger generation, making it more visual and impactful, particularly important for children in the primary sector.

Tony Borg, CEO at CS Technologies notes,The fact that the data generated by these devices can be easily extracted and interpreted is also noteworthy. The use of Prometheus, Grafana and the versatility of the MQTT implementation greatly enhance the project's effectiveness, as they allow users to understand the air quality conditions in their surroundings without requiring specialized knowledge or expertise. Such simplicity encourages broader participation and engagement from the community.”

The bear grows wings

Michael Spagnol, Head of the Physics Department at St Benedict College Kirkop Secondary School was also given the opportunity, thanks to the Education Department in Malta, to take students over to Italy on an international cultural exchange programme.

Part of their luggage included the Breathe Better Bear sensor, which they installed in the school they were visiting, to enable them to read and collect data. Again, this enabled the students to compare this data with those readings they had gathered in their school in Malta and discuss the results.

As a result, it has opened the doors for the expansion of the project. Ten schools already have the Bear installed across Malta, these include:

  • Maria Regina College
  • SMC Mosta Secondary School
  • SBC Kirkop Secondary School
  • SNC Rabat Middle School
  • SIC Handaq Middle School
  • SMC Cospicua Middle School
  • Gozo College Sannat Primary School
  • Gozo College Victoria Primary School
  • Stella Maris College
  • Science Centre, Pembroke – a Ministry for Education base for a team of STEM Education Officers.

There is continued interest from even more schools to participate, allowing the installation of more and more sensors to drive awareness and gather even more data.

The project also piques the interest of IT Departments with its IoT implementation. There’s scope to further explore functionality and look at the possibility of adding more devices that connect to user interfaces – making it both expandable and versatile.

What started as Cecilia’s inspiration to study the effects of wildfires on the environment, has turned into a unique way to engage, educate and influence young people to take a real interest in the world around them. Through innovation, they can understand and compile robust information to raise their concerns and help to influence change for the future.

Watch our video to find out more

Child learning about air quality

¹Malta's air pollution is among the worst in Europe (

Part of the DesignSpark team, I help to bring stories to life.