Smart kite reads air quality in Beijing

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Beijing pollution
This is a composite picture of two photos taken in Beijing only one week apart from each other. Wow, no wonder Beijing citizens’ eyes tear up when they walk outside! My eyes sting just looking at this picture.

Beijing has some of the worst air quality in the world. The pollution is so dense and vast, that buildings are blotted from the skyline! Millions of cars spew toxic smog into the atmosphere and outdated company factories with unregulated waste only make the problem worse.

The “air” – which is more like smoke – gets so bad, in fact, it stings people’s eyes and attacks them with a fit of coughing. The worst part is, the Beijing government keeps the air quality a secret from its citizens, so they don’t know what to expect when walking outside. WIll the oxygen be clean and breathable, or will it be a dangerous plume of toxic fumes? Thanks to landscape architect Xiaowei Wang and designer Deren Guler, that’s about to change!

They came up with the concept of FLOAT Beijing, which is a network of detectors that tracks air quality and informs citizens about its pollution levels. The coolest part for me, is that the detectors are attached to traditional kites, which have a long and loving history in Beijing! All the citizen have to do is fly them to get a reading. If the air is okay, tiny green lights along the kite flash, and if it’s bad, the lights blink a red warning to the people below.

Wang and Guler set up a series of workshops to show residents how the smart kites worked. “At first we were really worried no local citizens would show up to any of the workshops, that it might just be university students or expats who already have access to things like Twitter,” said Wang. However, many folks did attend – senior citizens included – and they were ready to learn some new tricks! “They were incredibly excited and it tapped into their [sense of] youthful activism, and they started telling neighbors, bringing their grandchildren to the events.”

Both critics and supporters worry that the red and green lights are a bit too simple to address the air quality, but the designers reckon the simplicity is what makes the kite truly ingenious! “We displayed it in a way that was really intuitive,” said Guler. “Everyone understood that different colors mean different pollution levels and just the activity of kite flying itself was also a really exciting way to distribute information.”

In a recent kite update, Guler and Wang added GPS sensors and memory cards so that citizens can keep track of any trends in the air quality and plot them on a map of the city. It may not be a personal air-cleaner system or anything, but a warning kite is surely better than nothing at all.

Featured image courtesy of INDEX: Award 2013 and FLOAT Beijing. Beijing pollution image courtesy of Ulrich Thumbult on Flickr.