Environmental monitoring data as “development”: The far-reaching effects of the Beijing embassy’s air quality monitor

When we think of “development” or “development projects,” environmental monitoring technologies are not typically the first things that come to mind. While data is (rightfully) gaining importance in the global health and development landscape, we usually default to primary health care interventions, vaccination drives, or agricultural technologies. However, in a guest editorial in Wired last week, former USAID advisor David Roberts puts forth the American Beijing Embassy’s PM2.5 monitor as precisely that:

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.

He goes on to tell the story of how, in 2008, embassy staff installed a rooftop air-quality monitor for the price of “a nice car.” The monitor was linked to a Twitter account that automatically tweeted air quality readings every hour. The catch (which is why I question framing it as a “development project”) is that the readings were originally only intended for American expats and travelers – the Great Firewall (that is, China’s nationwide internet restrictions) blocks access to Twitter and other social media – including Facebook, YouTube, and pretty much any blogging platform out there – by its citizens. (Having developed a major smartphone addiction during my time in South Korea, being blocked from just about everything I wanted to access during one day in Shanghai last March drove me batty. But I digress.) Internet users can only access such technologies via a VPN service – commonly used by expats, but much less so among Chinese nationals.

Predictably, however, a few savvy Chinese netizens got ahold of the information anyway.

can't stop the signal

They began distributing it through China’s own (permitted) social media channels, retweeting the readings on Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and incorporating the readings into homegrown air-quality apps. The Chinese government starting taking heat from its own citizens about poor air quality, a ongoing social tinderbox reignited by the availability of impartial (read: not official Chinese government numbers) data. Predictably, the government got upset and ordered the US embassy to remove the device, claiming that the dissemination of the information was somehow “illegal.”

Given the Chinese government’s sensitivity on environmental issues—and it’s irritation at anything viewed as foreign meddling in domestic affairs—it shouldn’t be surprising that the @BeijingAir account would eventually draw an official response. And that’s what happened on June 5, [2012] when China told foreign embassies to stop publishing their own reports on air quality in the country. (The U.S. consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou also post readings of the air quality of those cities on Twitter.) As of now the @BeijingAir account is still up and running, and it’s important to note that the American embassy has always said that the readings—which come from a single monitoring device on the roof of the embassy—were only meant to inform Americans living in the city.

Naturally, the embassy refused, and so Big Brother was forced to set up its own monitoring stations – and to be held accountable for air quality around the country. Roberts continues to extol the virtues of the expanded “program,” which the State department has now decided to implement at embassies in other countries in Asia (much like China, some of them are rather unhappy about it).

This little air-monitor-that-could also directly inspired other like-minded efforts. In India, the US government has now begun tweeting data from air monitors at its embassy and consulates. In Mongolia, non-government groups in Ulaanbaatar, one of the world’s most polluted cities, ran with the Beijing example by monitoring and tweeting out air-quality data; some even saw the possibility of repurposing the concept for flood warnings. And aqicn.org, which started as a way to share US Embassy – Beijing’s data, has transformed into the go-to site for hourly air-quality information at 4000 monitoring stations stretching from Hanoi to Honolulu.

Honestly, this sort of phenomenon is less about “development projects” and more about the power of information in the hands of an internet-savvy populace. The Beijing air quality monitor does not look like a development project as much as an example of successful government subversion – passive-aggressive actions that boost the credibility and favorability of our image abroad at the expense of the home country’s (foreign policy at its cleverest). The air quality “revolution” in China is certainly not something the US government can take credit for – that belongs to Chinese citizens.

But then again, that is what we believe development should ultimately be about anyway, so I guess I can’t complain.

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.

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