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.

 

Reading Assignment — Bathed in Smog (Again)

I realize that you may be getting tired of reading posts about the smog here in Beijing, but it is really…pardon the pun….the air we breathe.

I think that this has to be the most depressing headline ever: Bathed in Smog: Beijing’s Pollution Could Cut Five Years off Lifespan, Experts Say. (NBC)

This story, written by Adrienne Mong, focuses on the economic and health effects of our smog and the growing increasingly political nature of measuring air quality in Beijing. You see, the US Embassy monitors air quality in the capital and publishers their readings hourly on Twitter. It almost always hovers between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.” Sometimes it literally goes off the chart and the Twitter feed labels it “crazy bad,” at which point the Chinese government gets crazy mad and the laobaixing (common people) get crazy sad. Some have even speculated that this is what triggered the blocking of Twitter in China.Who knows?

Anyway, here are some of the key graphs from the article:

Earlier this month, a U.S. study on the economic impact of China’s air pollution was released with little fanfare. Maybe it was because of the series of successive “blue sky” days we were enjoying in the Chinese capital, thanks to the gusty winds blowing down from Mongolia. 

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, breaks down costs that result from the health impacts from ozone and particulate matter, which typically lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

The conclusion? “[D]espite improvements in overall air quality,” the cost of air pollution (as in lost economic productivity growth) in China has mushroomed from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 1995. But for at least one pair of 29-year old software engineers in Beijing, air pollution has actually meant greater economic productivity and a business opportunity.

Mong then goes on to write about the battle discrepancy between the US embassy and Chinese government readings (illustrated in the picture above):

The readings come from an air quality monitor that sits on top of the embassy in downtown Beijing, and they differ sharply from the daily results posted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

AQI values on @BeijingAir range from 0 to 500.  A “good” AQI  is 0 to 50 or what the Chinese call a “blue sky” day.  Unfortunately, many days in 2011 qualified as “unhealthy” to “hazardous.”  But on some of those same days, MEP data maintained the levels were “good” or “moderate.”  (The Chinese, in fact, claim there were 286 “blue sky” days in 2011.)

“The [Beijing] government says that nearly 80 per cent of the days in the last two years met at least the Chinese standard and therefore had good or even excellent air quality,” Steve Andrews, an environmental consultant who has analyzed the @BeijingAir data, said. “While when we look at the U.S. embassy data … over 80 per cent days exceeded what would be considered healthy air quality and more days were hazardous than good.”

Andrews said that Beijing’s pollution levels were “six or seven times higher than the U.S.’s most polluted city.” “Air pollution at these levels likely shortens life expectancy by about five years,” he added.

Who are you going to believe? The government or your burning eyes? I’m going with the eyes.

Read and discuss among yourselves.

(Image Source: NBC)

Related Posts:

Blue Skies of Beijing

No Wonder I’m Coughing

Acid Fog

The Smog! The Smog!

How Bad is the Smog in Beijing?