This January, a few hundred employees of Alibaba, the massive online retailer and digital payments company, participated in an interesting experiment. Like many Chinese, they traveled home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. While at home, they used inexpensive water testing kits to sample water in their villages and uploaded their findings via smartphone to an environmental mapping website, Danger Maps. Employees measured water quality in 420 locations across 28 provinces, testing open bodies of water as well as sources of drinking water.
The experiment was a trial run for a much more ambitious rollout, announced this week. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, announced that water testing kits would be sold through Taobao for between 65-80 yuan ($10-13) and invited the public to join his employees in becoming water quality monitors. Yang Fangyi, one of the managers of the Alibaba Foundation, explained that by mapping areas of poor water quality, the Foundation can work with local environmental authorities and NGOs to work on cleanup plans.
Environmental degradation is one of the most serious problems facing China. A report from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning suggests that China lost 3.5% of the nation’s GDP in environmental damages in 2010. Air pollution contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and journalists have compared Beijing’s air quality (unfavorably) to that in airport smoking lounges and industrial London on the most polluted days of the mid-20th century. Maintaining and improving air and water quality while continuing to rapidly industrialize are huge challenges for the country. Environmental issues are also an area where the Chinese government has been comparatively open about discussing problems and seeking international cooperation; Premier Li Keqiang addressed environmental problems in his address to the National People’s Congress last month, and US organizations that work with China report that it’s far easier to cooperate on environmental issues than on more sensitive issues like human rights or worker safety.
The little blue kit, manufactured by Greenovation Hub, may test China’s openness around environmental advocacy. Inside are tests for ph, Phosphates, Ammonia, Chemical Oxygen Demand (used to indirectly measure organic contaminants in water), and for five heavy metals, including cadmium and zinc. It’s more home chemistry lab than slick, sophisticated sensors – you’ll be dipping litmus paper into a stream and measuring the color that results, then entering the data into your phone if you participate in the project.
It’s unclear how many of Alibaba’s 500 million customers will purchase water quality kits and start uploading data to Danger Maps. Even if only a few participate, the implications could be very interesting. Land use issues are a major civic flashpoint in China. If farmers are able to document damage to the local watershed from a new factory, for instance, it might change the dialog, bringing nascent environmental watchdog organizations and government departments into the debate over land use.
Groups like Public Lab in the US and Safecast in Japan have been using crowdsourcing models to document environmental issues, monitoring water quality and radiation levels. Their work raises questions of whether we want citizens to be cooperative sensors, or citizen scientists. The latter is a high bar to cross – we need citizens not only to collect data but to formulate and test hypotheses. What we gain in exposing participants to the scientific process, we may lose in terms of data quality and believability. Safecast has traded accessibility for accuracy – their bGeigie geiger counter is pretty expensive in kit form, but is a lab-quality instrument, which allows Safecast to use the data collected to engage the Japanese government in dialog about post-Fukushima reconstruction. On the other hand, using a Safecast counter, it’s easy to feel like your job is simply that of a data collector, not someone figuring out the complex puzzle of when towns and villages will be safe to inhabit. (Safecast describes itself as a global sensor network, acknowledging that it’s strength is data collection, not the broader issue of citizen science.)
There’s a balance between accessible sensors, high-quality data and the ability for users to formulate and test hypotheses that crowdsensing projects need to wrestle with going forward – based on some of the results thus far, it seems like the Greenovation kit favors access over accuracy. (I suspect there’s not really that much standing water in China at ph10, despite reports on the map.) But it’s possible that communities affected by industrial pollution might purchase multiple sensors, organize testing plans and oversampling to improve accuracy. They might also look for sources of industrial runoff and test hypotheses about how industrial development is affecting their community. Consider a project from CMU called CATTFish. It’s a water monitor that sits in your toilet tank and measures temperature and conductivity to sense possible changes in groundwater quality. It’s designed for communities concerned about pollution from hydrofracking – with high quality, regularly updated data from multiple homes, a community could have an early warning system for detecting potential ill-effects from oil extraction. (h/t to Heather Craig, who introduced me to the project.)
I think there’s another subtle change we should watch for as well. Environmental crowdsensing is a form of monitorial citizenship, an idea we’ve been discussing a lot lately at Center for Civic Media. John Keane uses the term to describe the non-governmental and civic organizations that act as watchdogs, keeping governments honest and, sometimes, in check. Inspired in part by David Ronfeldt’s work on tribes, institutions, markets and networks, we’ve been looking at ways networked individuals can have similar monitorial power. The work we’re starting with Promise Tracker begins with asking citizens to monitor issues in their communities using mobile phones and will likely expand to asking citizens to use sensors to monitor water and air quality.
In our experiments with Promise Tracker in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, using mobile phones to document community problems and governmental and community responses to them, we quickly learned that many people don’t just want to collect data – they want to use data to tell stories and to advocate for change. Will citizens become sensors or scientists? Participants or activists? This may also have a lot to do with whether Greenovation Hub wants to build a business model or a movement, and whether a powerful, visible figure like Jack Ma is willing to have Alibaba become the nexus of an emerging environmental movement. That might be more potent and less dangerous than having individual groups organize to address water quality issues on a small scale and face potential backlash from local authorities.
I’m interested in monitorial citizenship because I see monitoring powerful institutions – commercial, governmental and otherwise – as something one can do every day as a citizen. Elections come around every few years and get all the attention, but it’s possible that the real power of citizenship comes from the monitoring that takes place between the elections. In a Chinese context, where power doesn’t come through electoral mechanisms, monitorial citizenship may have even more power – it may be a more genuine, authentic, believable path to political power than others available to most Chinese citizens.