Air pollution in China is a constant threat, and two U.S. companies —Microsoft and IBM — are looking to use their technology expertise to provide air-quality forecasting.
Yu Zheng, a researcher at Microsoft, told China Daily that technology companies like Microsoft "can leverage their computing infrastructures, data management, analytics tools and knowledge in data science to help forecast air pollution".
Zheng said that Urban Computing, a Microsoft research theme that "aims to tackle urban challenges by using big data in cities" can "create solutions that improve the urban environment, human life quality and city operation systems". The applications range from transportation to the environment and the economy.
Jin Dong, associate director of IBM's research division, told China Daily that sensor networks and advances in the Internet of Things technology have helped companies gather pollution data and weather conditions from a variety of sources, including weather and environmental monitors, satellites and even social media.
"While other companies have a two- to three-day forecasting capability, IBM has leveraged cognitive computing technologies to develop a 10-day pollution trend forecast which is already available to its clients," Dong wrote.
"Cognitive computing systems ingest, analyze and understand this data, identifying valuable correlations and providing actionable insight to those fighting air pollution," Dong wrote. "With machine learning, the systems self-configure and constantly improve … creating unprecedented levels of accuracy."
Last year, Microsoft and IBM both signed on to work with government clients on pollution-forecasting technologies.
Microsoft has signed up to work with China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the environmental protection bureaus in Fujian province and Chengdu, Sichuan province. The company has also created a website called Urban Air and a smartphone app with a 48-hour air pollution forecast for cities across China.
IBM's China Research lab launched its "Green Horizons" initiative in 2014. The company's first client was the city of Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau, but IBM has also signed deals with the city of Baoding, Hebei province and the city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, which will serve as one of the host sites for the 2022 Winter Olympics alongside Beijing.
"IBM has launched a multidisciplinary initiative to support China in delivering on its ambitious energy and environmental goals," Brad Gammons, general manager of IBM's Global Energy & Utilities Industry, told China Daily in an email. "The 10-year project sets out to leap beyond current global practices in three critical areas: air quality management, renewable energy forecasting and energy optimization for industry."
In December, Beijing officials declared two "red alerts" as a warning that heavy pollution was expected for several days across the capital.
Five other cities soon followed suit (Tianjin and four cities in Hebei province: Baoding, Handan, Langfang and Xingtai). China enacted its emergency air-pollution response system in 2013.
Ming Xu, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said one of the main drivers to promote the quality of measures to combat air pollution in China is "what Beijing residents see and feel everyday".
Xu, who teaches at Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, told China Daily in an email that he believes people are well educated on the metrics and indicators of air pollution issues in China, like the PM2.5 air quality index, which measures particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 microns that can be harmful to one's health.
"But people need to know also how these numbers are produced (e.g., from direct measuring or estimation/forecasting)," Xu wrote. "If it is estimation and/or forecasting, scientists should do a better job to explain the method and make sure people understand its limitations."
Events such as the Winter Olympics in 2022, which are going to be held in and around Beijing, could serve to help emphasize the need to have better air-quality improvement measure in place, Xu added.
"The Chinese government went to great lengths to reduce pollution for the 2008 Summer Olympics in order to protect the health of athletes and spectators alike," Dong said.
"This time they will be able to target specific activities — with the maximum effect, but with much less impact on economic activity and the daily lives of citizens," Dong added.
Nonetheless, "forecasting smog is different from forecasting air quality," Zheng wrote. And that can make for a "very complicated problem".
"[Smog] is a kind of weather condition, whereas [air quality] is the concentration of air pollutants. Air quality is impacted by multiple complex factors, such as weather conditions (foggy, smoggy, rainy), traffic conditions, pollution emission from factories, and the dispersion condition of a location," Zheng said.
"In short, forecasting air quality is much more difficult than forecasting smog," he said. "The two have a certain correlation but are not the same thing."