From Citizens to Satellites: Third-Wave Data Approaches in China

China’s environmental management faces a key crossroad. Its transformation into the world’s second largest economy has generated industrial growth and increased consumption. The resulting air pollution, rising greenhouse gas emissions, and soil and water contamination threaten public health – one in five deaths in China can be attributed to air pollution – and the country’s ability to continue to harness its natural resources.  

Data collection in China has struggled to keep up with the call to reduce pollution and clean up contamination. Researchers have struggled with gaps in data availability, interruptions in time series, and inconsistencies between sources reporting energy and air quality statistics. A large portion of environmental data, including soil quality statistics, have been historically considered state secrets, making it difficult to assess pollution levels or track improvement.

In recent years, China’s leadership has shifted towards more quantitative and scientific approaches to environmental management. The country’s major social and economic development blueprints, the 12th (2011-2015) and 13th (2016-2020) Five-Year Plans, include a growing number of ecological and environmental indicators and targets. The government has begun to embrace the use of new forms of data collection to help support environmental management and policymaking. The Foul and Filthy Rivers mobile app, for instance, encourages citizens to flag polluted waterways for government review. In the city of Guiyang, 120 monitoring stations collect real-time environmental quality data, including air quality, water, and noise levels, which the public can access through a mobile app. This work occurs alongside a number of non-governmental organizations, working to synthesize and collect environmental information, identify companies that violate regulations, and develop ways to incentivize green investing.

A new suite of papers by Data-Driven Yale explores the ways these kinds of new and innovative data collection – “Third Wave Data” – could help China meet the challenges of data-driven environmental policymaking. One paper, Addressing Gaps in China’s Environmental Data: The Existing Landscape, delves into the available data and identifies the most pressing gaps in environmental data around key sectors, from soil quality to biodiversity. Another, The Potential for Citizen-Generated Data in China, maps citizen science initiatives underway in China and around the world, to identify possible opportunities and challenges in applying these strategies. The project’s executive summary distills the key findings from both papers, and outlines key next steps for leveraging Third Wave Data to support environmental management in China.

The papers are available for download below:

Third Wave Data Approaches in China: Executive Summary

Addressing Gaps in China’s Environmental Data

The Potential for Citizen-Generated Data in China