China’s Biggest Polluters Face Wrath of Data-Wielding Citizens

Besides facing hefty fines, criminal punishments and the possibility of closing, the worst emitters in China risk additional public anger as new smartphone applications and lower-cost monitoring devices widen access to data on pollution sources.

The Blue Map app, developed by the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs with support from the SEE Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation, provides pollution data from more than 3,000 large coal-power, steel, cement and petrochemical production plants. Origins Technology Ltd. in July began sale of the Laser Egg, a palm-sized air quality monitor used to track indoor and outdoor air quality by measuring fine particulate matter in the air.

“Letting people know the sources of regional pollution will help the push for control over emissions of every chimney,” said Ma Jun, the founder and director of the Beijing-based IPE.

The phone map and Laser Egg are the latest levers in prying control over information on air quality from the hands of the few to the many, and they’re beginning to weigh on how officials respond to the issue. Numerous smartphone applications, including those developed by SINA Corp. and Moji Fengyun (Beijing) Software Technology Development Co., now provide people in China with real-time access to air quality readings, essentially democratizing what was once an information pipeline available only to the government.

“China’s continuing struggle to control and reduce air pollution exemplifies the government’s fear that lifestyle issues will mutate into demands for political change,” said Mary Gallagher, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

Even the government is getting in on the act. The Ministry of Environmental Protection rolled out a smartphone application called “Nationwide Air Quality” with the help ofWuhan Juzheng Environmental Science & Technology Co. at the end of 2013.

“As citizens know more about air pollution, more pressure will be put on the government,” said Xu Qinxiang, a technology manager at Wuhan Juzheng. “This will urge the government to control pollutant sources and upgrade heavy industries.”

Laser Egg

Sources of air quality data come from the China National Environment Monitoring Center, local environmental protection bureaus and non-Chinese sources such as the U.S. Embassy’s website in Beijing, Xu said.

Air quality is a controversial subject in China. Since 2012, the public has pushed the government to move more quickly than planned to begin releasing data measuring pollution levels — especially of PM2.5, the particulates most harmful to human health.

The reading was 267 micrograms per cubic meter at 10 a.m. Monday near Tiananmen Square, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center. The World Health Organization cautions against 24-hour exposure to concentrations higher than 25.

The availability of data appears to be filling a need, especially with the arrival of colder temperatures and the associated smog that blanketed Beijing and northern China recently. The 499 yuan ($77) Laser Egg has been sold out since the night of Dec. 8, according to Origins’ founder Liam Bates.

Beijing’s first ever red alert was imposed between Dec. 8 and noon on Dec. 10, making “everyone realize the environment wasn’t as good as imagined,” said Bates, a 27-year-old Swiss national and a former Chinese television anchor.

High Awareness

“With more disclosure of the data, everyone becomes more sensitive, hoping the government can do something,” Li Yajuan, a 27-year-old office secretary, said in an interview in Beijing’s Fuchengmen area. “It’s our own living environment after all.”

Efforts to make products linked to air data continue. IBM has been developing artificial intelligence to help fight Beijing’s toxic air pollution, and plans to work with other municipalities in China and India on similar projects to manage air quality.

“Environmental awareness in Beijing is probably among the highest in the world in terms of general public engagement in the issue of air pollution,” said Jonathan Batty, a spokesman for IBM Global labs. “We work with environment protection bureaus to give them insights so that they can act on it and provide that data to the general public.”