Air quality charts, studies, and even fashion trends prove just how terrible pollution has been in China. Still, for many of its citizens, the issue just doesn’t seem urgent enough. So, to make it plain and simple, one Beijing resident took photos of the same spot in the city’s skyline for 365 days and blogged about them.
“Like a lot of people, I forget [pollution level] readings as soon as I read them,” Zou Yi told China Environmental News. “A picture is worth a thousand words. If you see the same place, at the same time over a full year, the quality of the air becomes perceptible immediately…. Data and theories are too abstract, but pictures can give a much more vivid picture.”
Air quality in the country has become so detrimental—a former Chinese health official says that pollution kills up to 500,000 citizens a year—that a province near Beijing this week announced a plan to move its factories abroad. Authorities will design policies and financial incentives to encourage relocation to other Asian countries, Africa, and South America by 2023.
Zou has inspired others to start similar projects in their cities, while scientists abroad pitch similarly simple tactics to raise awareness.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison started mapping pollution in the country by following grievances about it on social media.
“There’s not enough information about pollution, and sometimes people suffer from heavier air pollution,” graduate student Shike Mei told reporters. “We wondered, ‘How can we use a new information source to help understand [the severity of] the pollution around?’ ”
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are using social media as well. But instead of quantifying air quality levels, they’re keeping watch on whether citizens notice pollution or change their behavior. Mark Dredze, one of the scientists, thinks that perception drives policy.
“We want to know where people are most sensitive about the problem, and in those cities, there will be more pressure to do something about it,” he said.