People power versus pollution

Technology is enabling the public to bypass unreliable official sources and keep tabs on the state of their environment. Tim Dean reports.

A tourist shows the pollution reading on his iPhone in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. – GAO ZHENG / IMAGINECHINA

You can’t always trust governments to tell the truth about the quality of the air you breathe or the water you drink. But in the age of citizen science and smartphone apps, people can take that power into their own hands. At least that's what Angel Hsu and her colleagues at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy argued in Nature recently.

The US embassy in Beijing in 2008 exposed a particularly egregious example of unreliable official information when it published data from its rooftop air quality monitor showing levels of particulates sometimes double that reported by the Chinese government. Public outrage was followed by a search for more reliable information and the emergence of organisations such as the “Weather Underground”. Operating across the globe, it combines official data from government weather bureaus with crowdsourced data from the public, collected using a network of more 34,000 personal weather stations. Its weather data are available via the web and smartphone apps.

Weather Underground gathers basic weather data from members of the public, but Hsu and colleagues say they can make an even bigger contribution. “They are increasingly contributing environmental measurements and geographical information, through social media, crowdsourcing and open-source databases.”

That contribution will be crucial to tracking progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) being formulated by the UN, they add, particularly when government or industry data are patchy or unreliable. It’s a problem Hsu frequently encounters while compiling Yale’s annual Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a country-by-country ranking of environmental policy. “Official data sets are not up to the task. We have found problems with government-reported sources in nearly every global data set that we have used in 15 years of constructing the EPI.”

Mining and smelting operations occasionally exceed safe levels
of lead, sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions.

Clearly the problem extends well beyond China, even to developed countries like Australia that pride themselves on their information gathering and distribution systems. According to Mark Taylor, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University, Australian data on pollution in the mining industry is patchy and unreliable, for example. His research has revealed that mining and smelting operations in the upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Mount Isa in Queensland and Port Pirie in South Australia occasionally exceed the safe levels of lead, sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions set by the federal government. “It’s data that often can’t be accessed by the public without a freedom of information request,” he says.

These days, citizen scientists are increasingly able to access a range of devices to gather environmental and pollution data. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon in the US, for example, are developing AirBot and WaterBot, small handheld measuring devices that will cost less than $100. Californian company Dylos already sells its Air Particulate counter to monitor particulate pollution for US$199.99, a fraction of the price of the instruments used by many government weather bureaus. And smartphone apps are becoming a popular tool for disseminating environmental data, such as those of Beijing air quality reported by both the US embassy and official Chinese figures.

A woman walks through heavy smog near Tiananmen Square. – AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON

“User-generated sources can gather more data than any government agency could manage,” Hsu and her colleagues say. However, Taylor has some reservations about the quality of the data. “I’m not sure you could write a Nature paper using that data, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. At least it allows people to have an alternative data source to industry or the government.”

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