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Big Blue smoke

IBM is helping to predict pollution
The Economist, 12 Jul 2014


Recent headlines suggest that American technology firms are suffering from a backlash in China because of attempts in Washington to prosecute alleged Chinese cyberhackers. But one Western firm has found a way to make itself indispensable: by using its technology to tackle a big local problem.

This week IBM revealed that it has signed a ten-year research agreement with the government of Beijing to help the city’s fight against pollution. Chinese officials have promised to slash levels of PM2.5 (a harmful air pollutant) by a quarter by 2017. Under the accord, IBM’s researchers will harness the firm’s expertise in supercomputing, big-data analytics and weather forecasting to predict the levels of PM2.5 three days in advance. This will better enable the government to shut factories, restrict vehicles and alert citizens.

It is an ambitious effort, not least because Chinese authorities are hardly known for their willingness to share pollution data. In the past it was only pressure from the public and the American embassy, which tweets regular readings, that forced more openness.

There are a hundred or so reliable monitoring stations today in Beijing but more are needed. IBM plans to top up official data with more from weather satellites and sensors around the city. It is also open to crowdsourcing pollution readings. The firm’s China research team leads its global effort on social-media analytics. The question is how much openness Chinese officials will allow.