Public Works: Real-Time Pollution Data Delivered to Your Smartphone
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Public Works: Real-Time Pollution Data Delivered to Your Smartphone

Chinese environmentalists have created a pollution app, spurring a growing demand for better industry regulation in the country.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A Chinese environmentalist group has developed an app that shows users’ data on the country’s worst air polluters in real time.

Released last summer by the non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), the app publishes hourly stats from government-mandated air-quality monitors at 15,000 industrial buildings around the country.

This is just the latest monitoring tool IPE has given the Chinese public. The organization’s website posts Chinese water, solid waste, and air pollution levels by province, region, and city. And IPE also has an index ranking 120 cities on their track record of environmental regulation.

The non-profit was founded in 2006 to “expand environmental information disclosure to allow communities to fully understand the hazards and risks in the surrounding environment, thus promoting widespread public participation in environmental governance.”

Getting the public involved in advocating for the environment is vital in China, where government-led environmental regulation has been unreliable at best. The country’s communist regime has spent the last several years pushing hard for economic development, environment be damned.

With a corporate landscape in flux—populated by state- or municipal-owned companies, a growing number of private firms, and state-controlled concerns with private investors—the worst polluters are often the ones with strong ties to the government.

As IPE told the Los Angeles Times in December 2014, there’s a lack of motivation among officials, especially in lower levels of government, to go after polluters.

With the public’s environmental awareness growing, though, the government’s attitude looks to be evolving.

Back in November 2014, Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Barack Obama announced a deal to cut carbon emissions in their respective countries. The plan involves China capping its emissions levels and deriving at least 20 per cent of its energy from zero-carbon power by 2030.

The Chinese public’s growing displeasure over pollution has created “real political will” for things to change, IPE’s Ma Jun told the Times.

Canada has its own transparency measures in place for pollution data. The country’s largest greenhouse gas producers report their emission levels to Environment Canada, which publishes them online, where they’re searchable by company name, province, city, or gas type. And in case you have questions about how the government enforces pollution laws, the Feds have broken down Canada’s environmental protection act for the casual reader.

At the local level, the City of Toronto has ChemTRAC, a mandatory reporting scheme for companies to disclose which chemicals they have released into the environment. Similar to China’s IPE, ChemTRAC has an interactive map showing you how close you are to polluters, who they are, and what substances they’ve been releasing.

It’s information that can help the average citizen decide where to live, what products or services to use, and what environmental hazards they should and should not be worried about.

And, from the polluter’s point of view, these disclosure programs can be good PR. If an industry wants to make the claim that its work is relatively eco-friendly, what better way to back it up than by turning their pollutant numbers over to the public?

The data are there. Now we just need someone to harness it into a real-time app, à la IPE, to make the information quick and easy to find.