Want to know how bad the air is in Beijing this August? Go fly a kite.
Smog in China's cities is a really serious problem, yet the Chinese government has often resisted releasing air pollution data. Just this summer, the government kicked up a ruckus when it declared that foreign embassies had no legal right to publish air quality data, an obvious swipe at the U.S. embassy's well-known Beijing Air Quality Monitor.
While the embassy is still issuing data on the hour, citizen scientists can now get into the air monitoring act as well.
An innovative project called FLOAT Beijing is working with neighborhood committees in east Beijing to assemble and fly kites bedecked with air pollution sensors and LED lights. During flight the kites' sensors will measure pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, and the lights will flash green, yellow, or red depending on the level of pollutants detected.
The organizers decided to try to raise $2500 via Kickstarter. By yesterday, the end of their Kickstarter campaign, they reached their goal and exceeded it by more than $2000.
Organizer Deren Guler, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, explains that they're making kite assembly easy by using plug-and-play components like Arduino and ATtiny microcontrollers. The sensors come from DIY clearinghouses like polulu and elechouse. But designing the kites has involved a lot of trial and error, Guler says. "Finding the right sensors and figuring out how to power them has been difficult," she wrote in an email.
On the first two Saturdays of August the organizers will conduct workshops to show residents how to assemble the kites, and the whole crew will then fly the kites through the warm evening air. Organizer Xiaowei Wang (a Harvard grad student) says they'll work in small public plazas in Beijing like Deshengmen and Huangcheng Gongyuan; she says these are "plazas that are big enough to launch kites, but small enough to allow for direct dialogue."
The goal isn't purely educational—there's some aesthetics here, too. As Guler and Wang wrote on their Kickstarter page:
Due to light and air pollution, it is extremely difficult to see stars in the Beijing night sky. These kites will appear not only as indicators of urban air pollution, but also a strong visual and sensory experience. As our project is public art, it also brings together people from all walks of life -- from old kite masters in Beijing, to young environmentalists, to participate and make the final public art piece together.
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.