Daniel Fisher (grayscale)

By Daniel Fisher • July 2, 2018

In 2007, China became the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide, pushing the United States back to second place. During the same year, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that diseases caused by air pollution killed more than 650,000 Chinese citizens a year, and that polluted drinking water killed nearly 100,000 a year. Smog was endemic in Chinese cities (and still is), particularly in Beijing, and with only a year left before the Olympics, China was left frantically searching for “a meteorological deus ex machina” to clear its capital’s skies.

After decades of few environmental rules in Beijing, the government began closing down coal-burning factories and instituted an every-other-day driving policy to halve the number of vehicles on the roads, vying to meet its goal of getting the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) below 101—a number which is still double the safety limit set by WHO.

In the end, that goal was met—AQI across the city was measured at 88—but the Beijing Olympics still ended up being “the most polluted games ever,” and most of the relief from pollution was determined to be the result of “some evening rains and favorable shifts in the winds.” How’s that for a meteorological deus ex machina?

To be fair, there is only so much a city can do in a year. The International Olympics Commission (IOC) lauded the government’s efforts, and Beijing’s hustle in 2007-2008 is certainly to be admired. Despite the urgency of climate change and other environmental dangers, the process of addressing these challenges is one that requires patience and resolve, and open data has a big part to play.

China has been reporting environmental data to the public for a while now. At the time of the Beijing Olympics, the city regularly reported AQI “Blue Sky” ratings. In 2014, four years after the U.S. Embassy in Beijing published less-than-flattering data on the air quality in the city, the Chinese government began requiring similar real-time pollution data from many of its factories.

But data alone does not drive societal change. It is better to think of it a substrate—a raw material from which compelling materials can be constructed. Furthermore, it is important to treat publicly-reported data with the scrutiny it invites, for the practice can give governments an image of honesty and transparency they don’t necessarily deserve.

The Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) believes it found a way not only to engage public interest in data, but also to hold governments and manufacturers accountable for the environmental damage they cause and allow: they made a map. The map gathers data about air and water quality from across China and puts it into the context of compliance with the environmental standards that the country has set, making it painfully clear who is living up to standards and who is falling behind.

The “Air” map function displays AQI of nearly 4000 locations. By coloring each location according to their AQI, a viewer can ascertain general trends—for instance, the rough southern/northern divide in air quality, which has led a small but increasing number of “smog refugees” to flee from northern cities like Beijing toward southern provinces like Yunnan.

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The same information can also be paired with a map of wind patterns in the area, which gives some idea of how air pollution moves through a given area.

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Clicking on a particular location, one can find more detailed information about its air quality and the time at which it was last updated.

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 The map similarly presents data on water quality according to a number of metrics. These, in combination with the air quality numbers, help to give an idea of the general environmental attitudes of cities and provinces, and may help motivate local governments to take a more well-rounded approach in their pursuit of compliance.

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The map also presents data specifically related to compliance, including a registry of manufacturers committed to better reporting environmental data.

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In 2022, China will again be holding Olympic games in Beijing, this time the Winter Olympics. Some of the skiing events will be held in the neighboring Hebei province, which is one of the most polluted in the country. The top official in Hebei has already vowed to cut smog in his province, promising to cut 2013 levels of small particulate matter in half by 2020. Only time will tell if that promise will be kept. Meanwhile, tools like IPA’s air pollution map can tell us how Hebei is doing.

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Looks like there’s still work to do.