Case Study: Air Pollution Visualized, Daily

Michael Animation, Data & Graphics, Photo, Video March 8, 2015

It all started in the lead up to the Olympic Games in 2008, I had a tickling idea to start paying attention to Beijing’s air pollution (video I co-produced). So I asked a friend whose apartment window has an open view over the skyline. I asked a favor to take a picture a day, if possible. And that project kept going for more than eight years. If you haven’t been to China, or smelled the lung-penetrating air or coughed it out while there, you have no idea how bad the air quality is. But just look at this below, one view from the exactly same angle but on two days.

Two days in Beijing with air quality between night and day [Pity that the scent cannot be reproduced here]

As I was also an avid technology follower, I started playing around camera equipment and attempted to automate the photography process, and eventually developed an off-the-shelve system that snaps a picture every hour (or however often you choose) from a location with WiFi and automatically beams pictures to a server, Flickr or something like that.

I’d also spend time coming up with new and more engaging ways to visualize the story with an ever growing digital archive of all the photos (of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China). For example, to spice up the heaven-and-hell contrast between a good day and a terrible day, I used GIF or similar animation techniques, below is one of them:

Speaking of this slider effect above, I want to say a thank you to NASA’s Earth Observatory, which often publishes satellite images that overlook parts of China and posts such as this comparing two days with drastically different visibility seen from space. For the interactive slider version of the images above, read this story I wrote on The Atlantic.

Courtesy of NASA, I then got to create a series of these double side-by-side slides that compare two different days from two perspectives, one on the ground and the other from space:

Two days in Beijing as seen from satellite and on the ground (thumbnails)


Another topic triggering heated discussion is the pollution data, mainly one set from the Chinese government and the other from the US Embassy/Consulates. I, again, got really excited and came up with various data charts and this is among my favorite:

Air Quality Index comparison chart of New York City and Beijing over a 8-month period in 2012


Last but not least, I pooled a lot of the work above and some additional research and interviews into a short doc video here:


In all, this project has been a thrilling experience and I learned a lot about a variety of rich media techniques and gained a lot of exposure on our own platforms and by mainstream media (e.g. Forbes, Foreign Policy), reaching hundreds of thousands of people.