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Fighting China's Pollution Propaganda, with Glowing Robot Kites for the People

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...

by Joshua Frank
Jul 16 2012, 1:25pm

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.

Hey Deren. What's the idea behind FLOAT—the name, as well as the project?
The name FLOAT mainly came from the idea of kites—and lights—floating in the sky. Xiaowei had this idea about 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.

Xiaowei thought it would be really neat to have air quality sensors on kites, which I also thought might be better, because you could retrieve them. Balloons have more of a disposable feeling. She asked if I would be interested in working on it with her, and we started looking at all of these similar projects, including the Air Quality Egg and another at Carnegie Mellon called the AirBot, which is a little more focused on getting really accurate particulate matter data.

We've come to the question of how to display air quality information to people. A lot of countries agree — most of them, but not China — about the scale of good to bad air quality. I started to think a lot about what colors have to do with different sorts of weather and air quality reports, and how to make a very clear visualization of what's going on that you can see without going to find a computer to look up the figures.

How crucial is it for FLOAT to have the most precise readings possible? Is that an aim, or is it more about just community engagement and activism?
The sensors are pretty accurate. If the majority of the sensors agree and show the same thing, then you're definitely within the range of what the air quality actually is.

But it's not so much about the most precise data, because you could get that from the US Embassy's Twitter feed, if you wanted to. I think it's more about having the power of collecting data yourself and being able to compare it to official figures. It's also about seeing what the air quality is like in your neighborhood, as opposed to official data for the entire city.

How did you choose the colors?
As far as the sensors and lights mounted to kites for public flights, I think we're just going to stick with green, red, yellow. In general, green means good and red signifies bad. But we're also thinking of making more stationary modules to stay on the ground—say for a month or so, in a storefront or a window. Things like blurring an image or warping the shape of things could also be effective. It's a weird question about visualizing air, since it's not really something that we can see. It's something that we feel, if it's good or bad.

I remember Xiaowei telling me that in some tests she did in Beijing last year, pollutant levels were so high that they peaked the sensors and as a result the data was unusable. What sort of things are you accounting for based on the fact that this is China-caliber pollution?
At first we'll have to test everything and see what happens. We can start in places that are not as close to so many factories and recalibrate according to that. We could also have two sets of data, based on what's considered 'good' air in China and what's considered 'good' in Pittsburgh or Boston.

I read that each kite includes a microcontroller with a range of sensors for VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) particles, natural gas, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. On some kites, a GPS locator will peg the information to Google Maps in real time, and to a storage card. Where do you get this equipment, and how much does this stuff cost?
Buying all of the parts in the US, the sensors cost in the range of five to ten dollars, and the lights are 50 cents to a dollar. Altogether it's about $20 per module, I would say. But I wouldn't be surprised if it costs $10 or less for each kite with LED lights if we can find everything in Beijing. For the kites that do data logging, they cost $30-$40 each.

You haven't worked in China before. Why is China good for FLOAT?
Pollution is a big issue in China, and it's interesting to integrate with a traditional activity like kite flying. China's also the place where so many electronic things come from. It'll be interesting to see how in a country that's so capable of creating parts for the FLOAT sensor modules, how something like this will function at its place of origin.

A view from Beijing’s “Coal Hill,” near the Forbidden City, January 2012 (Sean Gallagher)

What kind of applications do you think FLOAT can have in the U.S.? What sort of potential do you think a similar project could have here?
I like to do workshops with people who aren't already super exposed to electronics. It's a very empowering experience when you've created something useful and pretty at the same time. And I think the question of how to visualize air quality information is an interesting thing to get people thinking about anywhere in the world. Maybe color is not the right thing at all. Maybe in the future we'll be able to just sort of touch things virtually through screens. It's one of those things where you could ask a little kid how they would want a FLOAT kite to be, and they'd say something like, 'I think it should have an engine that powers my Nintendo and flies around and takes pictures around my house…"

In a way, FLOAT kites can function like citizen drones.
I like that. That's probably what people would say in the United States. It'll be interesting to see what parts of the project have particular impact in China. Everyone cares about the quality of the air they're breathing or the water they're drinking. I've never been asked too many questions about why we're doing what we're doing. It's more like "When? Where? How much? This is awesome!"

I'll be in Beijing with FLOAT in July and August filming material for a short documentary about the project. Stay tuned.

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