Kite Sensorship: Citizen Science Monitoring China’s Skies for Pollution

Photo credit: Elizabeth Phung
Photo credit: Elizabeth Phung

In the eyes of a Beijinger, the view is a familiar one: an old man flying his kite in the late afternoon breeze. As the sun sets, however, the kite’s colored lights flare and the traditional kite acquires a modern aspect. Make no mistake; these lights are not decorative. They indicate the presence of certain air pollutants.

Launched in July of 2012, FLOAT Beijing, a community art project that utilizes citizen science, offers a simple, innovative and non-confrontational approach to air-quality monitoring—kites. Pioneered by two U.S. graduate students, the project tracks air pollutants using air sensor modules attached to kites. In recent years, China has seen an upswing in civic environmental activism. While the government has improved outlets for citizens to vent environmental grievances, many channels remain either heavily congested with bureaucratic rigmarole or blocked. For this reason, projects that are able to bypass these channels, like citizen science and do-it-yourself, or DIY, technologies, may prove vital to mitigating China’s environmental problems.

When graduate students Deren Guler from Carnegie Mellon and Xiaowei Wang from Harvard first conceived in 2011 of a kite sensor to monitor air quality, environmental ingenuity took to the skies. Their idea was simple: provide basic air monitoring technology and kite-making materials to Beijing residents while teaching them to collect air quality data.

Once in flight, the kites use GPS tracking devices to publish real-time air quality data online to open source databases and social media networks. Air quality sensors embedded into each kite detect VOCs (volatile organic compounds), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide and particulates. If the sensors detect the presence of any of these pollutants, an LED light displays the compound’s corresponding color. Other FLOAT Beijing kites simply show a series of colors to reflect the quality of the air. The sensor chips are detachable, allowing individuals to manually upload the data post-collection.

Assembly is fairly basic, permitting Beijing residents to design and assemble their own kites. FLOAT Beijing facilitates this process through a series of kite-building workshops scattered throughout the city. The kite technology is relatively inexpensive, costing approximately 130-260RMB (US $20-40) per kite and materials for the air sensors can be purchased at local hardware stores.

If China is serious about mitigating air pollution, greater civic engagement and citizen science are indispensable. The most faithful and reliable sources for environmental information are those who have nothing to gain other than truth. Local citizens are obvious candidates, since those directly impacted by poor air quality are the ones most invested in improving it.

Environmental hazards such as air pollution and global warming are invisible to the naked eye, making transparency about the nature of these threats vital. The idea that kites could turn Beijing’s veil of smog into a visible beacon of air quality monitoring is a hopeful sign for China’s environment; however, the challenges loom large. Citizen-driven environmental initiatives that incorporate citizen science and DIY technology lie at the heart of effective environmental work. Greater support, both domestically and internationally, for projects like FLOAT Beijing will better prepare our world to face the fearsome environmental hurdles ahead.

About the author

Abigail Barnes is a law student at Vermont Law School and a Junior Research Fellow with the U.S.-China Partnership. She has written for chinadialogue and worked this summer at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in Washington, D.C. A PDF of the full research brief on FLOAT Beijing Kites can be found here.

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