His pictures tell a thousand tale of pollution in the air

M Ramesh Beijing | Updated on January 12, 2018

Engineer-turned-photographer Zou Yi with his sky images - Photo: M Ramesh

Zou Yi will never forget December 1, 2015. It was the day he got a staggering 130 million page views for his post.

It was a post on the Chinese social media websites, Weibo and Wechat, not very different from those he had been making every single day since 2013. In fact, his posts never varied and ought to have been considered singularly boring — each was a picture of the Beijing sky of that day.

His was a strange passion indeed. Every morning, Zou Yi would clamber up a vantage point and take several pictures of the all building of the Beijing TV station against the backdrop of the sky through the day and post the one taken in the morning.

So, the post of December 1, 2015 was not different from those of the other days. But a combination of two other factors drove traffic to the picture of that day. One, in distant Paris, the now-historic ‘COP 21’ conference on climate change kicked-off; two, Beijing declared ‘red alert’ for the pollution levels of its skies. Climate and environment were on uppermost on everybody’s mind. Hence, (Zou Yi reasons) 130 million!

Eco enthusiast

The big number of clicks, though heartening, was only an event in the shutterbug’s recent life. Zou Yi, who worked as an engineer at sites all over the world where the Chinese were building infrastructure (such as Pakistan), kicked his job and picked up the camera in 2013, with a mission to contribute something to the cause of the environment. “Not for myself, but for my children,” he says.

The air pollution watcher has set out five years of Beijing TV station’s pictures on a roll of vinyl. The colour of the sky in each picture gives an indication of the pollution level of that day. A cursory look at the pictures shows that things have gotten better in the Chinese capital.

In the last year or so, Zou Yi has been getting “volunteers” from over 20 Chinese cities, and a few cities elsewhere in the world, to send him pictures. “Volunteers are welcome from India too,” Zou Yi tells a team of journalists from India.

Today, the man has a stockpile of over 400,000 photographs of China’s skies, including those of the Beijing TV station, each identified with date and time. Matching the photographs with the air pollution data put out by various sources, Zou Yi (aided by a team of seven technologists) is developing an application that will give you the exact PM 2.5 levels in the air from any photograph. The app is being tested now and will be ready for launch in 2-3 months time, he says.

Data from images

To illustrate his point, Zou Yi takes the journalists outdoors and randomly aims his mobile camera at the sky and clicks. Within seconds, there appears a number on the picture — 80. He then compares the number with the government data, which says 74. “The difference”, he explains, “is because the government’s monitoring station is about 4 km away.”

The hoard of pictures is valuable data which, Zou Yi says, is superior to satellite pictures. “Scientists from different parts of the world come to me,” and he always obliges gratis.

Zou Yi anticipates that the app will get 300 million users in two years. Today, his NGO, Beijingairnow, owns the data while the app will be owned both by the NGO and the team of technologists. Would Zou Yi monetise the data? “Not now,” he says.

Published on June 06, 2017

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