Beijing, the capital of China, is known for its rich culture and long history. In recent years, it has also been recognized by the world for its dire air pollution issues. The explosion of personal automobiles, along with heavy industries surrounding the city, has created layers of smog all year round. Indeed, smog often envelops the city and is a constant threat to the health of its citizens. Beijing’s outrageous air quality has been often reported in Western media.
This project documents a week-long trip the artist took to Beijing during the summer of 2015. Each photo shows a landmark in the city, visited by her during the day, along with the hourly changes of the air quality condition of the day. The air quality is visualized by the hourly AQI (Air Quality Index) and PM2.5 (particulate matter, or ‘things floating in the air’) data over the twenty-four hour period. The hourly AQI and PM2.5 data were retrieved from the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter account @beijingair.1 It is often believed, especially by the Chinese residents, that the U.S. Embassy’s data is more reliable.2
The pollution in Beijing is usually considered ‘mild’ during summers; it is the cold air in winter that traps the pollutants and makes things worse. So when the artist visited Beijing during that week in June 2015, she was interested in paying attention to the more ‘friendly’ air quality. The hourly AQI and PM2.5 are visualized here using graphs of different length, size and colour. The length is proportional to the value of the daily AQI. The size is proportional to the circulation amount of PM2.5 (μg/m3). And the colour scale is based on the colour code-chart developed by the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency). It shows the level of health risk – the greener the healthier, and the redder the less healthy.3 The highest and lowest points of AQI and PM2.5 are marked in each photo. Blue sky was visible on two days: June 2nd and 6th. Unsurprisingly, the graphs referring to these two days are relatively shorter and smaller, and become partially green during the day.
The objective of the project was to make the air pollution visible and to raise awareness of it – by imaging it. Two realities – tourist attractions recorded by digital photography and air pollution represented by graphic visualization – overlap in each image. The last photo shows a slogan, printed on a red banner in the iconic Chinese style, hanging outside the track field of Beihang University. It reads, ‘Exercise outside one hour a day – Be healthy for fifty years – Live happily for a lifetime’. All of this will be possible only when the air people breathe becomes clean.
2 D. Roberts (2015) Opinion: How the US Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air, March 6. Retrieved July 30, 2015, from http://www.wired.com/2015/03/opinion-us-embassy-beijing-tweeted-clear-air/
Yvette Shen is a visual communication designer and educator. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, US. Her areas of interests include digital humanity, information visualization, typography, visual metaphors, and visual communication principles and practices.