‘Blue Sky’ App Gets China’s Public Thinking About Pollution Solutions

Realtime Emmissions Data from Factories Highlights Growing Environmental Crisis

The Blue Sky Map app, which was officially launched April 28 by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), enables the public to check up on air and water quality and local sources of pollution, and scrutinize emissions from 9,000 polluting companies.

It is a major advance on a previous version of the app, which uses a map developed almost a decade ago.

IPE’s head and environmental campaigner Ma Jun last month was awarded the prestigious 2015 Skoll Foundation award for “lifting the veil on pollution” in China.

In the interview below with chinadialogue, Ma explained some of the innovations in the latest versions of the app and the potential impacts.

Institute of Public and Environmental Affair
A view in the Blue Sky Map app that shows air pollution readings across China, as seen on May 1, 2015.

Ma says it is not easy in China for the public to acquire pollution information themselves, a motivation for the IPE to use Internet technologies to create pollution maps.

These allow the public to see what’s happening with a simple tap—and could encourage both businesses and government to step up their efforts in the “war on pollution.”

Ma says his strategy has opened up a new way for the public to participate in environmental protection, and also provides a model for monitoring of pollution in other countries where the burning of coal and growing vehicle use has contributed to increasingly toxic air quality.

chinadialogue: You’ve recently been awarded the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Were you the first globally to use the internet, and in particular a mobile app, to allow real-time monitoring of pollution data? Why was this innovation first deployed in China?

Ma Jun: At the award ceremony, hundreds of social entrepreneurs from around the world were amazed by our app. Real-time data on sources of pollution isn’t available in much of the West. China is the first country to do this on this type of scale. However, the U.S. and the E.U. have been fairly open with some information to improve environmental management since the late 1980s.

China is seeing even greater calls for openness than those nations—in Europe and North America, the judicial system can be used to ensure good environmental management.

In China, that [judicial] route is not yet open, and so public participation—which requires openness of information—is more important. There are several reasons why apps providing real-time information on sources of pollution first appeared in China. The country suffers from heavy pollution, and so the public have a more urgent need for such data and are keener to see something done. Meanwhile, a rapid increase in Internet use has enabled a high-tech approach; and China has active environmental NGOs promoting greater openness of pollution data.

Why did you rename your existing pollution map the “Blue Sky Map”? What’s new in the latest version, and what will you be adding in future updates?

When we launched the pollution map in 2006, we hoped to show everyone the consequences of pollution. Now those consequences are common knowledge and it’s time to take things to a new stage: not just being aware of the problem, but working to fix it. Nothing makes people want to participate in protecting the environment more than the idea of a blue sky, as many cities have already lost theirs. We hope the new name will bring people to try and get that blue sky back.

Version 2.0 adds water-quality maps; real-time air-quality data for 380 cities, up from a previous 190; and pollution data from 9,000 companies, up from 4,000 in the earlier version. We’ve also added weather forecasts and advice on whether or not you should wear a mask, open windows, or undertake outdoor activities. Visualizations of soil pollution data are to come in the future.

Developing countries also face the same pollution issues China does—could an app be used elsewhere? And globally there is a threat of pollution being transferred between countries—could this approach be used to monitor pollution globally?

Many social entrepreneurs from developing nations have asked if they could do the same thing at home as their own nations are facing the same challenges. Air pollution is very bad in India, for example. Some also worry that polluting companies no longer welcome in China would move to their countries, creating a new cycle of transfer of pollution. I think that methods such as ours could create a global environmental monitoring network, ensuring these firms remain in public view wherever they end up, allowing for oversight of global manufacturing and procurement, and preventing the companies from lowering their environmental standards.

Do you want to work with developing countries on developing their own versions of your app?

We’re happy to share our experiences. Of course, circumstances are different in every nation. In China, the information released is limited, but the government does a lot of monitoring and the authorities have a solid dataset—and we encourage the release of that data.

However, in some countries that monitoring is weak. They need to take account of their own circumstances, perhaps relying on new technology to have the public monitor pollution and make that public, creating a social monitoring network. And also you need to think about how to encourage companies to monitor their own pollution and publish that data. This kind of job requires data, and that data takes time and effort to collect. We’ve been doing it for ten years, and it’s very dull work.

In China, polluting companies are often protected by local government. How does IPE operate in such circumstances?

There are several aspects we take particular care with: Firstly, we stick to our goals and our mission—we’re an environmental group, so we stick to the mission of protecting the environment, rather than getting distracted by other issues. Secondly, while maintaining our principles, we are also aware of the national circumstances and we build trust with interested parties, to bridge those gaps in trust. Thirdly, we aim to be professional and scientific. We’re founded on data, on science, and that’s extremely important, as in China the impact of data can still be sensitive and NGOs are still quite new. When our work does create pressure for us, when companies with bad pollution records come to see us, the fact that our data comes from government provides support. Fourthly, we don’t just try to have a major impact. We try to improve processes, and communicate effectively so nobody gets any surprises, and try to encourage companies to move in the right direction—the companies aren’t our enemy, pollution is.

You’ve been compared to Forrest Gump for your dedication during 10 years collecting and publishing pollution data. Do you object?

Not at all, and actually I also like running! When I was at middle school every afternoon they’d lock the classrooms and dormitories, and you had to go and run, so it became a habit. I don’t have so much time or energy for it now, but I still run every day. And our work is like running—but not a sprint, a marathon, needing long commitment and effort.