Though the notoriously poor air quality of Beijing is hardly a secret, Chinese government officials recently upbraided foreign embassies for making such information public online (case in point, the U.S. Embassy's hourly Twitter updates of local air quality).
But leave it to a pair of graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University to take it to the grassroots level: combining technology, design, environmental activism and the local tradition of kite-flying, designers Deren Guler and Xiaowei Wang created FLOAT Beijing, a project that uses kites equipped with air quality sensors that allows citizens to get active in monitoring their local aerial environment.
In August, the designers organized a series of workshops in Beijing instructing participants in the building and deployment of their own air-sensing kites using simple materials and open-source tech:
Using a combination of DIY electronics workshops and group kite flights, residents became engaged in the process of air quality monitoring for themselves, as well as seeing the data visually through LEDs, as well as stored data on SD cards. These modules use Arduino and are relatively easy to put together; workshops with local residents focused on talking about urban air quality, soldering and assembling the modules, as well as attaching them to kites.
The LEDs on the hand-built kites are programmed to indicate air quality with different colours; green being the best and pink being the worst. Data was interactively mapped in real-time using geolocation; the idea is to light up the sky with a squad of sensor kites that will give a general sense of how good or bad the air pollution is -- and to collect and parse the data in one place.
The idea is to give people the tools for knowledge, says Guler on GOOD:
It’s citizen-science—that’s the main goal. We’re trying to interact with people on the street and see what they’re trying to do with the information they see. I don’t plan to argue that this is the most accurate data because there are many potential reasons for differences in air quality reports. We want to just keep it up, upload the data, and focus on that more after we come back.
It's a clever idea that bypasses short-sighted, bureaucratic rigidity and empowers local residents. If you're in town, there will be another kite workshop and flight at Beijing's upcoming Design Week; with live data will be displayed at the China Millennium Museum of the Digital Arts; FLOAT will also appear at Maker Faire NYC September 29 to 30. Details over at FLOAT Beijing.