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.

IH News Global Health Weekly News Round-Up

Politics and Policies:

  • The government of Australia is preparing to soon offer a 20-minute HIV test in Melbourne. It has yet to decide which clinics will offer the test.
  • The National Population Commission has announced that China has planned to improve county-level family planning services.
  • Regulations have been issued by the government of Indonesia to bear graphic photographic warnings on the cigarette packets.
  • The United Nations has allowed Bolivia to return to the United Nations main anti-narcotics treaty and has given its approval on chewing the coca leaf.
  • Twelve nations have signed a new United Nations treaty which aims to counter the illegal tobacco trade.
  • New York City (U.S.) hospitals will adopt new guidelines that will forbid emergency room doctors to give out more than three days’ worth opioid painkillers to the patients.


  • Pfizer Inc. has included its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine to expand its pediatric immunization program in Tanzania.
  • UNICEF calls for cessation of child recruitment in the Central African Republic. More than 300,000 children have been affected by the violence which has led to their limited access to education and health facilities.
  • US$176 million announced by IMF and World Bank for debt relief for the Union of the Comoros. It will help the country to fight poverty and improve health and education facilities.
  • European Union gives EUR 16million support to Ghana. This money will support the implementation of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Accelerated Framework and Country Action Plan developed to combat maternal mortality.
  • $25 million has been awarded by Abt Associates for a three-year malaria prevention project in Kenya.
  • The FCC has launched $400 million heath care development fund with an aim to create and expand telemedicine networks.


  • According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry there is a relationship between mental health and spirituality.
  • According to the Journal of Infectious Diseases, nosocomial transmission responsible for XDR-TB outbreak in South Africa.
  • A study identifies the chances of infection (co-infection) with another disease when a person is infected with a disease.
  • A study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery Pediatrics, climate can be the reason for a neurological condition, hydrocephalus in children in Uganda.
  • Number of new annual cases of HIV/AIDS cases in India has dropped by 57 percent in the last decade.
  • A study published in J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry links loneliness with higher chances of dementia or memory loss.
  • Researchers have identified role in obesity and diabetes. They have found that blocking the expression of gene TRIP-B2r  in mice protects them against obesity and insulin resistance.
  • A report published by Natural News states that children who are vaccinated according to the CDC recommended schedule are five times more likely to develop diseases as compared those who are not.
  • According to the findings of a report, among all rich countries, people of U.S.  live unhealthy and shorter lives.

Diseases and Disasters:

  • The Flu has surpassed an ‘epidemic’ threshold in the United States. It is widespread in all except the three states of US.
  • According to The New Times survey, there is a severe drug shortage in Kigali hospitals (in Rwanda).
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) yellow fever has killed about 171 people in Darfur (Sudan).
  • Top U.N. Aid officials warn food crisis in two isolated southern states of Sudan. People of South Kordofan and Blue Nile have been feared dying of malnutrition and disease.
  • According to the officials, about 80 people have died in Bangladesh due to cold-related diseases like respiratory problems, pneumonia and cough.
  • People in Beijing have been warned of extremely hazardous air quality. The density of PM2.5 particulates has reached 700 micrograms per cubic meter in many parts of city.
  • Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health has warned the public of possible outbreak of Leptospirosis (rat fever) in flood affected areas.
  • According to the health authorities, Barbados has recorded an increase in dengue cases since the last year.
  • Paraguay has confirmed reports of outbreaks of dengue in the north and east of the country. It has declared a national epidemics alert.

Global Health Weekly News Round-Up

Politics and Policies:

  • The White House has ruled that young immigrants who will be allowed to stay in the United States as a part of a new federal policy will not be eligible for health insurance coverage under President Obama’s health care overhaul.
  • Japan is preparing for an increase in tobacco prices to seventy five percent more than the present.
  • China is planning to cut the prices of 95 cancer, immunology and blood related drugs by about 17 percent to reduce the growing number of chronic, age-related diseases in the country and make health care affordable.


  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announces 2013 Federal Employees Health Benefits Program Premium rates.
  • The Red Cross calls for funds to halt cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone.
  • Cuba launches its first nanopharmacetical drug- a tweaked variety of cyclosporine to help to prevent transplant rejection.


  • According to the Australian researchers more pregnant women are being diagnosed with some form of cancer. They said that this could either me due to increased mother’s age which increased the possibility of cancer or due to increased interaction with health services during the pregnancy.
  • A study has warned that the U.S. obesity rates will be soared by the year 2030. This will increase the burden of illness and also their health care cost and decrease the productivity.
  • According to a study there is a link between obese pregnant women with sleep apnea and chances of their neonates having this problem.
  • A paper published in the journal Genetics says that compiling large amount of data into useful information for the patients and doctors will help to make them better decisions by knowing the possibility or likelihood of developing / passing along a hereditary  disease. It will make a better sense of genome data using informatics approach.
  • According to the scientist the females who undergo radiation therapy for the cure of cancer have their DNA‘s damaged. This causes two proteins PUMA and NOXA, to trigger the death of cells causing early menopause. Blocking the action of these two proteins will help to prevent infertility in the females undergoing chemotherapy.
  • The scientists at the Harvard School of public health say that the people who consume two or more sugary drink per day have increased chances of developing obesity.
  • According to a study published in the journal Science, newly formed memories can be erased from the human brain.
  • According to the recommendations by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants should be given to the sexually active adolescents as a reliable method of birth control.
  • According to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine, females who are on high antioxidant diet like fruits and vegetables have reduced risk of developing a heart attack.
  • The scientists at UCLA AIDS institute have discovered that variation in progression of speed of HIV in people vary due to the killer T-immune response that occur early on during this infection. It targets an epitope called IW9 on HIV protein.
  • A study done by the Mayo Clinic Arizona has showed that the spilt-dose preparation technique for colonoscopy has improved the polyp detection rates, precancerous rates, overall quality of preparation and colonoscopy completion rates.
  • A recent study has shown that the efficacy of drugs for treatment of cancer, Alzheimer’s and obesity can be boosted by the nanoparticles to target the mitochondria- the power house of the cell.
  • According to a study published in the journal Lancet, the child mortality rates in Niger (one of the world’s poorest countries) have declined nearly fifty percent over the last decade.
  • DNA barcoding will help to authenticate the natural products. It allows the scientists to use short standardized regions of genetic material to identify the species and compare them to reference genetic sequences.
  • According to a report published in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, the increasing demand to move personalized medicine research forward is fueling the growth of biobanking market.
  • In Botswana vinegar swab is being used to prevent cervical cancer. Pap smear method to diagnose the disease is not possible at times due to lack of laboratories and other facilities.
  • According to a study done by a group of British and Australian researchers the toxic venom of snake can be modified to provide benefit to an organism. The scientists are trying to explore if this discovery can help to find cure for cancer and diabetes.
  • A microscopically thin film made up of hydroxyapatite can prevent caries and will make the teeth look brighter.
  • A study done by the researchers show that the patients and their relative abuse doctors.
  • According to a consumer group, children should avoid consuming too much of canned tuna fish to avoid mercury poisoning.
  • According to a study children exposed to high levels of mercury increase their chances of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • According to Spanish study kid’s score higher in developmental tests if their mothers get enough vitamin D during pregnancy.

Diseases and Disasters:

  • According to the Consumer Reports, the FDA, and the attorney General for the state of Illinois, arsenic levels are reported high in rice.
  • Hundreds of children in North India have been infected with Japanese Encephalitis.
  • Flood situation has deteriorated in North Eastern India.
  • Flood in Cameroon have killed 30 people and affected at least 26,000.
  • Kane County Health Department (Illinois) is conducting a food-borne illness investigation into six cases of Salmonella that are linked to Aliano’s Ristorante in downtown Batavia.
  • Singapore sees more haze, air quality reduced.
  • Kroger (US) has recalled spinach in 15 states to avoid the selling of Listeria-tainted product.
  • A public health alert have been issued by Department of agriculture’s Food Safety and inspection Service (FSIS) for boneless beef trim products imported from Canada that might be contaminated with E.coli O157:H7.