Chinese App Tracks Factory Pollution In Real Time To Shame Companies Into Cleaning Up Their Acts

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People walk on an overhead pedestrian bridge on a hazy day in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2013. China’s air pollution is now so bad, it is now more visible from space than the Great Wall.

Nearly 400 red dots speckled a GPS map of China Monday morning, each one pointing to a factory that's actively violating air pollution limits. Such emissions figures were once kept under lock and key by the government, but now they’re readily available with the swipe of a smartphone.

The map is part of a new app created by a Chinese environmental group to track — and shame — polluting factories on a real-time basis, the Associated Press reported. The app posts hourly updates on emissions that companies themselves report to local authorities. It also allows users to search quickly for air quality data for 190 cities and share monitoring data for nearby polluters.

The goal is to enable citizens to hold public officials accountable on air quality and to pressure factories to stop spewing pollution and causing smog.

With the app, “if the air quality is bad you can switch [to the factory map] and see who is in your neighborhood,” Gu Beibei, senior project manager at the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which created the app, told the AP. “It will be a very effective tool for people to voice out their concerns.”

Official Chinese data on pollutants like PM2.5 — airborne particles that can cause health problems — was shrouded in secrecy up until three years ago. Authorities began relaxing their hold as rampant air pollution sparked fierce criticism of the ruling Communist Party, which for decades has favored rapid economic growth and industrialization over environmental concerns. The smog has sent cities scrambling to find ways to clean up the air, including deploying giant cannons spraying water 2,000 feet into the air to dispel smog or confiscating outdoor grills, USA Today reported in May.

China’s Environment Ministry now requires about 15,000 factories nationwide to report on their air emissions in real time to local officials, and earlier this year, the government began requiring that the information be made public. But the data was mainly published on provincial government websites and was far from user-friendly, the AP said. 

The new app is the first time the data has been collected in one place. It’s also the latest in a string of air quality monitoring apps available on Chinese smartphones. The Beijing Tech Report blog previously reviewed five apps for Android and iOS that allow users to see when they’re better off staying indoors.

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