The Power of a Tweet

In a follow up to yesterday’s post about the disappearing pollution documentary in China, it’s interesting to note that it was a US Embassy Twitter feed that jump-started the conversation and concern about the growing problem of air pollution in China.

cctv in smog

 

A recent article in Wired tells the story in a post titled How the US Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air. Here’s a short excerpt:

WHEN THE US Embassy in Beijing started tweeting data from an air-quality monitor, no one could have anticipated its far-reaching consequences: It triggered profound change in China’s environmental policy, advanced air-quality science in some of the world’s most polluted cities, and prompted similar efforts in neighboring countries.

As the former Regional Strategic Advisor for USAID-Asia, I have seen first-hand that doing international development is incredibly difficult. Billions of dollars are spent annually with at best mixed results and, even with the best intentions, the money often fails to move the needle. That is why I was so inspired by the story of the US embassy’s low-cost, high-impact development project. They tapped into the transformative power of democratized data, and without even intending to, managed to achieve actual change.

Here’s how it happened.

In 2008, everyone knew Beijing was polluted, but we didn’t know how much. That year, the US Embassy in Beijing installed a rooftop air-quality monitor that cost the team about as much as a nice car. The device began automatically tweeting out data every hour to inform US citizens of the pollution’s severity (@beijingair).

For the first time in China, publicly available data focused on one of the most dangerous types of air pollutants, PM2.5—airborne fine particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter or about the thickness of a spider web’s thread. These tiny particles are small enough to penetrate your lungs and even enter your blood stream, causing serious cardiovascular and respiratory ailments. In fact, experts have recently shown that air pollution is responsible for more deaths worldwide annually than malaria and HIV combined.

In 2010, it became official: Beijing’s air quality was deemed “crazy bad” by the Embassy when the pollution exceeded the bounds of the EPA’s air quality index. This inadvertently undiplomatic tweet reached a growing audience via third-party apps that circumvented China’s twitter firewall. People were attracted by the reliability of the Embassy’s data, which helped them make daily decisions—whether it was safe to let their children play outside, for example.

This data often painted a bleaker picture than did the Chinese official pronouncements. Beijing residents, dissatisfied with the crudeness of China’s air quality monitoring efforts, put pressure on Chinese officials to acknowledge the scale of the problem and start taking proactive measures to tackle it.

I was living in Beijing at the time and followed this Twitter feed right away (although there were many days I wished I hadn’t). We knew the smog was bad (we could see it and taste it), but now we knew just how bad!

I remember the day a tweet declared the pollution in Beijing to be “crazy bad,” and the subsequent temper tantrum thrown by the Chinese government. As the article notes, they demanded the embassy stop monitoring and publishing the air quality measurements, to no avail. They even threatened to do monitor and publish information on the air quality in Washington in retaliation, to which the embassy responded, in effect, “go ahead, make my day.”

With the publication of this data, the jig was up for the Chinese government. No longer could they tell the people that the murky air was just fog.

It wasn’t long after all this that Twitter was blocked in China.