All People in China Need to Turn Into Smog Whistle-Blowers Is a Smartphone

Polluting factories are getting put on blast with an app launched by a Chinese environmental group.

(Photo: William Hong/Reuters)

Jun 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. That’s the message users of a new air quality–monitoring app will be sending to thousands of China’s pollution-spewing factories. The groundbreaking app, which launched on Monday, provides real-time data on emissions levels in 190 cities. That’s not all: It also empowers users to be more than passive observers of smog. Once the app is downloaded to a smartphone, an everyday citizen can become a whistle-blower on hazy conditions at the local level.

How does it work? In January, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection mandated that 15,000 of China’s biggest factories publicly report air emissions every hour. This app takes that unprecedented information transparency—after all, this is the country that created a fake sun billboard in Beijing after smog obscured the real one—and plots the updates from power plants, iron smelters, steel mills, oil refineries, and other industrial manufacturers on a map. If a factory exceeds emissions standards, it is highlighted in red. There’s no hiding: Everybody knows which polluter is making it necessary to bust out the medical mask for a walk around the block.

You can imagine how tempting it would be for a company to try to fudge its reporting data. That’s where the real genius of this app comes into play. If a neighborhood is especially smoggy, even if a company claims that it meets the discharge standard, a user need only power up the app, which uses GPS to pinpoint a user’s location and identify the factories that are closest. Once that’s done, the polluting culprit(s) will be put on blast.

“It will be a very effective tool for people to voice out their concerns,” Gu Beibei, senior project manager at the independent Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which created the app to put the data in the hands of the average person, told the AP.

The smartphone-based app is just the latest in a slew of efforts in China to combat the country’s rampant pollution. Last week the government announced plans to boot 6 million smog-gushing cars from roads by the end of 2014, and another 5 million in 2015.

So far, thanks to the institute’s technological innovation, 370 companies have been found to be exceeding emissions standards. Perhaps some serious public shaming (and government fines) can help these factories get their environmental act together.