FLOAT adapted the traditional Chinese pastime of kite-flying to create a network of air quality monitors
'Smart kites' track air quality
01:20 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

A pair of young designers have created kites that monitor Beijing's air quality

Lights on the kite string would give a simple readout of pollution levels

Kites' rich history in Beijing made it easier to get local residents' support

CNN  — 

For the 20 million residents of Beijing, air pollution – and the lack of official information about it – is a constant concern. Until recently, eye-watering smog was the only reliable sign that car fumes and smoke had reached unsafe levels, but now two young designers have come up with a more elegant and accurate indicator of air quality.

Xiaowei Wang worked with Deren Guler, a fellow design student, to develop the concept of FLOAT Beijing, a network of air-quality monitors fixed to the kites traditionally flown across the city. Lights controlled by sensorS and trailing along the kite string like fireflies would give a simple readout of pollution levels: green for safe and red for danger.

Kites flying has a long history in Beijing, which helped Wang and Guler to get local residents involved in the project – something that they considered crucial to its success. They organized a series of workshops at which people could modify their own kites, turning them into mobile air-quality monitors.

“At first we were really worried no local citizens would show up to any of the workshops, that it might just be university students or expats who already have access to things like Twitter,” Wang says – but they were amazed at how many elderly people joined in. “They were incredibly excited and it tapped into their (sense of) youthful activism, and they started telling neighbors, bringing their grandchildren to the events.”

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Wang said that the workshops also helped break down barriers between the kite fliers and the equipment they were working with. “It was not just about putting technology into a black box or having people buy modules that they could read data off,” she said. “It was really allowing people to see how (the sensors) functioned and therefore develop a relationship to the technology.”

The sensors used for the project measure carbon monoxide, ozone and general particulates.

Guler acknowledges that the traffic-light readouts provide a ballpark guide to pollution levels rather than specific quantitative data, and that some critics and supporters have suggested they adopt a more rigorous approach. In response, she says that the simplicity of the data is one of its strengths.

“We didn’t just collect the data and put it on a spreadsheet online,” she sa