Beijing’s got air issues. Dust and fumes blow in from out-of-province factories and the city suffers from the exhaust of more than five million cars. Until recently, officials in the Chinese capital half-boasted that 2,000 new cars were joining its clogged streets every day. The occasional sandstorm blowing in from the Gobi desert and the city’s unfortunate geography, in a basin surrounded by mountains, doesn’t make the air any cleaner.
Also murky: precise data on just how much pollution Beijingers are breathing in. The government’s pollution data doesn’t present a rosy picture to begin with, but their figures—accompanied by promises of “blue sky days”—are positively bucolic compared to other independent measurements. The US Embassy’s own numbers for hazardous PM2.5 particulate matter sometimes top 500 parts per million, about 20 times higher than the guideline issued by the World Health Organization; one recent study said a month breathing in Beijing was equivalent to smoking five cigarettes. Since 2008, pollution stats from the embassy’s pollution sensor are posted regularly, like secret code, on the @beijingair Twitter feed, which has earned the ire of Beijing officials even before that time it famously called the air crazy bad.
When a group of Beijing activists copied the embassy and purchased their own $4,000 pollution monitor last year, they set off a firestorm of activism across the country over air quality. But not everyone could afford pricey sensors.
Now a group of kids from the U.S. plans to foster the impulse for local environmental awareness using a cheaper alternative to expensive air monitors, and an implement as trusted as it is unsuspecting on Beijing’s streets: the kite.
Called FLOAT, the project is the brainchild of Xiaowei Wang, a master’s student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and Deren Guler, a master’s student of Tangible Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon. Between the end of July and late August, the pair will be constructing kites and pollution sensors with locals at a series of gatherings in neighborhoods across Beijing. Then they’ll hit up public parks and help communities take their sensors to the skies.
The kites, which will measure PM2.5 particulate matter in the sky and on the ground, are designed specifically to turn community science into community spectacle. With blinking colored lights, each kite will be able to visualize its readings in real time. During special nighttime flights, FLOAT hopes the kites can spark dialogue about Beijing’s air quality beyond the existing activist community.
I spoke to Deren about FLOAT last week, just before her trip to Beijing, and as the project’s Kickstarter campaign was nearing its $2,500 goal; it ends in two days. (The project has also received grants from The Awesome Foundation and the Black Rock Arts Foundation.) Xiaowei, deep in separate research in the Mongolian hinterlands, was unreachable.
VICE: Hey Deren. What’s the idea behind FLOAT?
Deren: The name FLOAT mainly came from the idea of kites—and lights—floating in the sky. Xiaowei had this idea of creating an air quality module, and came across another project by a Carnegie Mellon student named Stacey Kuznetsov who put little LEDs with air-quality sensors inside balloons and released the balloons at night. It looked really interesting to see these floating, glowing things that indicated air quality.
Read the rest over at Motherboard.