The Alloy team sat down with Meiling Gao – chief operating officer at Clarity, previously a USAID fellow at Columbia and Fulbright scholar in China conducting research on the impact of urban development on air quality and health. Meiling’s goal is building relationships with government and corporate partners to transform how air quality data is collected and used.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about Clarity and how your team recognized the need for better air quality monitoring solutions?
A: Clarity provides a turnkey air monitoring technology and service for governments, community groups, and industries. When we were founded back in 2014, our team hailed from all over the world, where we saw that air pollution was a really pressing and very visible concern. But back then, there was really no easy way to know about the air that we were breathing. You could look at the data from the government if you were lucky to live in a place where that data was public, but this could be from a station that was maybe 20 miles away from where you lived. So, it wasn’t as relevant to you as you hoped.
You really can’t solve the problem of air pollution if you don’t know when and where it’s happening. So, we went out to solve this problem to make it easier to get air pollution data. Clarity’s mission is to empower the world to make air quality data more accessible and actionable.
Q: If you were to gauge most folks, they are likely to say “Yeah, we probably have an air quality problem,” but most people probably don’t know what the challenges are around our monitoring infrastructure. Can you give us a little bit of an overview of the current limitations of our systems?
A: We’re lucky enough to live in a country where we have thousands of monitors around the country. This ambient air monitoring network in the U.S. started back in the 70s and 80s. So it’s been around for a while. The technology is held and stored in environmentally-controlled, large rooms or shelters; they look like shipping containers. They’re really bulky and expensive, and require a technical team to run and maintain this network. Because it’s so expensive and bulky, you can only install these stations at certain locations. So it gives you limited spatial coverage that doesn’t really tell you what your local air quality is. And because these stations, this whole network, was set up decades ago, this monitoring infrastructure, like many other things in our country, is aging. Federal, state, and local funding for these networks is declining. There was a recent GAO (Government Accountability Office) report that said the funding to operate these networks has been declining about 20% since 2004, which is astounding, given the amount of work and the funding that’s needed.
The network needs to be able to adapt to changing environments, as cities grow, as populations change, as pollution sources change. So governments are really grappling with the issue of how to do more with less. There is a need to modernize this existing network and make it more flexible, adaptable, and also resilient.
Q: Clarity supports several private, hyper-local community groups that are trying to get data that current infrastructure isn’t providing; yet at the same time, you’re working with government agencies to modernize their infrastructure. So how do you balance your messaging to work from local to federal and balance all of those relationships?
A: That has been challenging. But one thing that we started doing last year is build out different personas for these user groups based on experiences working with them to really help us understand their motivations and pain points, and tailored our product and messaging to them accordingly. They share many of the same pain points, whether a community group or a government agency at the federal, state, or local levels. One of the top priorities we identify across these groups is to cost effectively understand and manage the air quality. Keeping these pain points in mind helps us to tweak our messaging and highlight features and advantages of our solutions that can help solve these pain points.
Q: In the early months of COVID shut downs, we saw all these beautiful pictures of nature returning to Los Angeles because nobody had been on the road. From your perspective, did COVID have an unintended consequence, or maybe unintended benefit, of illuminating air quality monitoring issues? How did that change demand?
A: 2020 was definitely an interesting experience and changed how we approach and view our business. It created awareness of the importance of having a clean and safe environment to promote health. There were studies being done showing that living in areas with poor air quality can exacerbate COVID spread and premature mortality. So I think that did bring the health aspect into a lot of our conversations with folks. There’s more interest in public accountability to provide more local, real-time information, whether that’s health information, disease transmission or even air pollution. That’s something we’re aiming to highlight in our marketing materials moving forward.
Q: Clarity works globally, and relationships are really key when you’re working with the government. During COVID, with the lack of travel, the lack of in-person conferences, how did you continue to nurture those relationships?
A: There was definitely a renewed interest in environmental quality, air quality and health. So last year, we actually hosted our first webinar. It was a collaborative event between our customers and ourselves. We had customers highlight their challenges and successes. And by doing so, we strengthened our customer relationships by showcasing different intended use cases of our solution. So it really shows that collaboration, even in this environment, can still charge ahead, because the will to change and improve is there. These issues that we’re facing are so pressing.
Q: Clarity’s customers are global – Paris, India, Kuala Lumpur. How do you adapt your marketing and messaging to speak to global challenges but on a local scale?
A: We do work very globally, but we realized that even if the air pollution problems are different and the context is different, the reasons why people care about air pollution and the process of tackling these issues are very similar. We tweak our messaging globally based on local pain points from conversations with our potential customers, but the main motivation of trying to manage air quality effectively is a very consistent theme.
Q: A lot of our readers work for tech companies that are challenging some sort of legacy infrastructure or process. What advice do you have that translates for those who are in the same boat as Clarity?
A: In our case, we found it better to work with the existing players, trying to see ourselves as pushing the boundaries on how air quality can and should be managed. We’re really working together with them to improve our air monitoring infrastructure to make sure it meets the needs of our changing society. In the process, we’re working with governments, so we’re often working at the pace of governments. A lot of patience is required, and there’s willingness to demonstrate the value that we’re trying to provide through various pilots and demos. So we have a willingness to work with them on some of these issues and help them learn and grow with our technologies, because there definitely is a learning curve on both sides. We’re learning how our technology responds in different environments, how the market is changing as well, and they’re learning a new technology and trying to see how it can fit into what they’re doing right now. That collaborative process has worked really well for us and we will definitely be continuing that in the future.