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How China is using surveillance and big data to cut down on pollution

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In Beijing’s environmental bureau, a team of engineers tend to giant mainframe computers that keep a watchful eye on the city’s pollution.

Using everything from factories’ infrared profiles to social media posts, the machines can call up three-day pollution forecasts with resolution of up to 1 kilometre squared and detect trends up to 10 days out.

The computer programme, developed by IBM, is one of several high-tech measures, ranging from drones and satellites to remote sensors, that China is deploying to deal with its chronic pollution.

It seeks to solve an incongruous reality: In a country where security cameras are ubiquitous and Communist authorities operate a vast public surveillance system, accurate information about pollution remains scarce — even to officials.

As a result, Beijing and its neighbouring provinces “can’t coordinate joint defence and joint control” of their antismog efforts, leaving rogue companies to “secretly discharge and secretly dump”, said Chen Long, chief executive officer of Encanwell, which develops air quality monitoring and early warning systems.

The company is trying to achieve total pollution awareness: the ability to know, with perfect accuracy, where haze comes from and use that information to predict and preempt its future sources.

‘APEC BLUE’

China has found itself in a double bind in the face of a relentless assault from bad air that put the capital on its first-ever air quality red alert this month.

Ahead of the 2008 Olympics, China closed factories across the region, halting construction and pulling half of all private cars off the roads. It was an effective strategy, but came at an estimated cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ensuring blue skies for major events such as last year’s APEC summit, the World Athletics Championships in August and a World War II anniversary parade, required a similar brute force approach that inflicted collateral damage on the economy in the country, where growth is slowing.

Failure to act, on the other hand, runs the risk of inflaming public discontent — a perpetual source of concern for the government, part of whose claim to legitimacy rests on maintaining an image of supreme competence.

“It’s a complicated problem. It has an impact on society, on industry, on the economy, on health,” said Herve Robin, chief technology officer of Airvisual. com, a China-based social enterprise dedeveloping tools for a global pollution monitoring network.

Choking pollution descended on Beijing twice in the past two weeks, and the country’s meteorological bureau expects it may come twice more before the month is out.

“If each time the weather conditions are not good for pollution, they shut down everything, then it would be every week,” Robin said.

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