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Kate Logan on How Data Transparency and Social Media Are Cleaning Up China’s Air: Fighting for Blue Skies

In 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began reporting data on local air quality from a monitoring station on its roof. Once the dismal numbers were shared on Twitter, a storm of public outcry was unleashed that would culminate in the Chinese government creating a National Air Pollution Action Plan in 2013 and agreeing to release air quality data publicly.

The chain reaction of events touched off by the U.S. Embassy’s air quality monitor demonstrated the power of open data and transparency – how it can spur public awareness, enable groups to pressure decision-makers for accountability, and ultimately lead to sustainable action and real change.

Kate Logan, green choice outreach director at the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), says IPE taps into similar dynamics – but with a compliance twist – to keep up the pressure on China’s polluters.

“The unique aspect of IPE’s approach is that it’s based on government policy and (bridging) the gap between policy and implementation,” she told WRI during a recent workshop on air quality in Washington, DC. “We tap into competition and rank cities in terms of how well they’re complying with different policies to motivate them to improve.”

In a national map that covers air quality but also greenhouse gas emissions, water, and sanitation indicators by city, as well as available records for major companies operating in the country, like Gap Inc. and Target, IPE helps cut through levels of overlapping policy to present a clearer picture of success or failure.

“We have tapped into real-time data from industrial emitters,” Logan says, “and looked at using transparency in social media to motivate companies to make public commitments to implement corrective actions that will be sustainable in the long run.”

IPE also tracks “which government departments are making data more available to the public as well as how comprehensive and consistent the data is published,” Logan says.

Because people know which cities and companies are following the rules and which are not, there is pressure on the worst offenders to clean up their acts.

Social media has transformed how people hold decision-makers accountable, but social media advocacy ought to be combined with good, open data for the best results. If open data is the roadway, then social media is the vehicle that will deliver it to its final destination – faster and into the hands of those that can catalyze real change.

Air pollution, as a growing global problem with varying sets of solutions, is an ideal test pairing of social media advocacy and open data. Through initiatives like OpenAQ, citizens and civil society groups can gain access to a global network of likeminded advocates and technical experts and begin building the evidence base needed to fight for cleaner air. A citizen-led effort in Bogotá, for example, recently led to changes in the procurement process for the next generation of city buses that will better reward bids that include cleaner burning vehicles. “Citizen science” partnerships, including in other sectors like water and fisheries, also open up new possibilities for practical research and improved modelling techniques.

Air quality levels are still at unsafe levels in many parts of China, but recent changes – triggered mainly by the national government requiring homes and businesses to switch from coal to natural gas – show that progress can be made and many cities are heading in the right direction. Thanks in part to data.

Fighting for Blue Skies is a series of short interviews with air quality activists from around the world. Part three will wrap up the series by giving more insights on opportunities for open data sharing for different sectors and how it can be leveraged to fight the battle of air inequality where it matters most. To learn more, access OpenAQ data for your area on ResourceWatch.

Seth Contreras is an Air Quality & Road Safety Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Nilima T. Shrestha is a Humphrey Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.