News / Asia

    Tech Giants Spot Opportunity in Forecasting China's Smog

    A woman wearing a mask walks past below skyscrapers amid heavy smog at the financial district of Pudong, in Shanghai, China, Dec. 11, 2015.
    A woman wearing a mask walks past below skyscrapers amid heavy smog at the financial district of Pudong, in Shanghai, China, Dec. 11, 2015.
    Reuters

    Air pollution in China could be big business.

    Two of the world's largest technology firms, IBM and Microsoft, are vying to tap the nascent, fast-growing market for forecasting air quality in the world's top carbon emitters.

    Bouts of acrid smog enveloping Beijing prompted authorities in the Chinese capital to declare two unprecedented "red alerts" this month - a warning to the city's 22 million inhabitants that heavy pollution is expected for more than three days.

    Such alerts rely on advances in pollution forecasting, increasingly important for Communist Party leaders as they seek improvements in monitoring and managing the country's notorious smog in response to growing public awareness.

    Official interest has also been boosted by China's preparations to host the Winter Olympics - Beijing's smog is worse in the colder months - in 2022.

    "There is increasing attention to the air quality forecast service," said Yu Zheng, a researcher at Microsoft. "More and more people care about this information technology."

    A rudimentary forecast was pioneered by Dustin Grzesik, a U.S. geochemist and former Beijing resident who created Banshirne.com, a free website and smartphone app, in 2013 to predict clean air days using publicly available weather data on wind patterns.

    "If you can predict the weather, it only takes a few more variables to predict air quality," said Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth, a U.S.-based non-profit that maps China's real-time air pollution. "Most of the time pollutant emissions don't vary very rapidly."

    Now, advances in "cognitive computing" - machines programmed to improve modeling on their own - allow more sophisticated forecasting software to provide predictions for the air quality index up to 10 days in advance using data on weather, traffic and land use, as well as real-time pollution levels from government monitoring stations and even social media posts.

    Business of Smog

    Both Microsoft and IBM secured their first government clients last year after developing their respective pollution forecasting technologies at their China-based research labs.

    Chinese authorities only began releasing real-time levels of PM2.5 - airborne particulate matter under 2.5 microns in diameter that can penetrate deep into the lungs - in 2012, after denouncing the U.S. embassy for publishing its own real-time monitoring data on Twitter.

    Pagodas are seen on a polluted day in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia region. Northern China choked under some of the worst smog this year on Nov. 30, with Beijing's pollution soaring to 22 times healthy limits. Photo taken Nov. 29, 2015.
    Pagodas are seen on a polluted day in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia region. Northern China choked under some of the worst smog this year on Nov. 30, with Beijing's pollution soaring to 22 times healthy limits. Photo taken Nov. 29, 2015.

    IBM's first client was the city of Beijing's environmental protection bureau, which bases its color-coded pollution alerts on the technology.

    The company launched a "Joint Environmental Innovation Center" - staffed by government and IBM scientists - with the bureau earlier in December, allowing officials to better model pollution reduction scenarios during the worst episodes.

    Still the municipal government only makes public a 24-hour forecast on its website, meaning residents aren't able to see for themselves when a "red alert" may be due.

    The environmental bureau's monitoring center did not respond to a request for comment.

    IBM has also signed a deal with Zhangjiakou, which will jointly host the 2022 Winter Olympics alongside Beijing, to do forward planning and scenario modeling ahead of the games.

    For its part, Microsoft has signed up China's environment ministry, and the environmental protection bureaus in Fujian province and Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan.

    Outside China, IBM has also signed deals for air quality modeling with Delhi, one of the world's most polluted cities, and Johannesburg.

    "We should be able to use the same base system and do air quality forecasting in different parts of the world," said Brad Gammons, the business leader behind the IBM initiative, which the company calls 'Green Horizons.' "With the machine-based learning we can do it very quickly."

    The two tech rivals aren't just competing over government clients. Business clients - in particular renewable power-generation companies - are another target, along with consumers.

    Already more than 30 solar farms in China are using IBM's forecasting technology, which can also help predict the availability of sunlight.

    Microsoft has created a website called Urban Air and a smartphone app with a 48-hour forecast, while the China Open tennis tournament put IBM pollution forecasts for parks across Beijing on its public WeChat social messaging account.

    But there are still kinks to work out.

    The latest version of Microsoft's iPhone app lacked the forecasting function advertised, which the company blamed on a bug, while during a recent "red alert," when the air was considered hazardous and schools were shut, the China Open IBM-based forecast recommended "light exercise."

    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora