Shanghai Street View: Misguided Measurement

Shanghai improves air quality reporting

Shanghai environmental officials have been busy this past week boasting of the latest improvements to their system for informing the public about the city’s most up-to-date air quality. In the latest advance to the ever-improving system, people can now get real-time updates online and over their mobile phones to find out just how good or bad Shanghai’s air is.

Perhaps I’m being a bit cynical, but I’m starting to get just a tad tired of this constant stream of improvements to the city’s air quality reporting system, each of which gets huge coverage in the local media. Obviously it’s good to know just how polluted our air is, and more information will allow ordinary people to make better choices about how they structure their daily activities.

But at the same time, this constant stream of new improvements also seems to contain just the slightest overtones of bragging. It’s as if Shanghai is somehow trying to show just how advanced it is and how quickly it’s moving to address the central government’s concerns about air quality.

I would much rather read news stories about polluting factories that are being closed, and crackdowns on some of those awful lumbering trucks and other vintage vehicles you often see slogging along the nation’s roadways belching out huge clouds of smoke and other pollutants.

The latest improvements to the city’s air quality reporting are quite straightforward, moving to a system that takes real-time data from the many measurement stations around Shanghai to tell people what’s actually in the air they’re breathing at any particular time. It seems that in the past, we were getting data that wasn’t very fresh, derived using air quality readings that could sometimes be as much as 24 hours old.

News reports on this latest move featured a wide range of ordinary people complimenting the improvement. Some school teachers and parents found it particularly useful, as the more accurate readings would help them better decide when to let children play outside and when to keep them indoors.  Perhaps that’s true, though it’s often possible to make the exact same decisions simply by looking outside and seeing how hazy it is.

Here I should start by congratulating Shanghai for its huge advances in tackling the air pollution problem in just the last 2 years. I can remember a time in the not-too-distant past when air quality measurements were almost treated the same as state-secrets. The issue even led to a diplomatic row as recently as 2012 when China accused the US of meddling in its affairs simply because the US embassy in Beijing was posting self-measured air quality readings on its website.

Nowadays such tussling has thankfully been relegated to the history books where it belongs, and accurate air quality information is easy to get from official sources. But in that process, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, and it often seems like improving reports and installing the latest high-tech measuring devices has almost become more important than the far more important issue of cleaning up the air.

This kind of misplaced focus on numerical targets and processes over actual problem solving is somewhat common in China, where officials love to show they are working hard to execute the latest policy directives from Beijing. Similar initiatives in areas like electric vehicles and solar power often produce lots of headlines and new program announcements, even though final results often fall far short of lofty targets.

Shanghai’s steady series of improvements to its air quality measurement system also has just the slightest overtones of regionalism, seeking to point out how advanced the city is compared to other parts of China. This kind of competition isn’t exclusive to China, and many cities in the US and Europe engage in similar bragging to showcase their achievements.

But whereas most of these western cities make their boasts in a bid to be more competitive and boost civic pride, those factors seem to be less important in China. Instead, it often feels like the promotion of such achievements in China is more aimed at the central government, seeking to show how local leaders are working hard to meet Beijing’s objectives.

On the broadest basis, I really can’t find fault with all the efforts that Shanghai is making to improve its air quality, and really do appreciate its many efforts to clean up the problem and keep residents informed. But modesty has always been a top Chinese virtue, and perhaps a change of tone might be appropriate in this situation. Personally speaking, I wouldn’t mind less boasts about new technology and better measurements, and more talk about real world efforts to clean up a problem that has become a major concern for everyone.

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