China’s air quality problem is good business for IBM and Microsoft


IBM and Microsoft are nothing if not entrepreneurial, and much of their success is owed to their ability to see everything as a business opportunity. For example, the air pollution in China has become a serious health problem for its 1.3 billion citizens, especially in massive metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, and when you live in a country where the air can go from pleasant to noxious in the span of a few hours, being able to forecast the air quality becomes really important. That’s where IBM and Microsoft think they can be of assistance, and make some cash in the process. Both companies have been developing advanced air quality forecasting systems to help civilians prepare for those especially smoggy days, and they’ve each secured a few government contracts already.

Air pollution in China could be big business. Two of the world’s largest technology firms, IBM and Microsoft, are vying to tap the nascent, fast-growing market for forecasting air quality in the world’s top carbon emitters. Bouts of acrid smog enveloping Beijing prompted authorities in the Chinese capital to declare two unprecedented “red alerts” this month – a warning to the city’s 22 million inhabitants that heavy pollution is expected for more than three days. Such alerts rely on advances in pollution forecasting, increasingly important for Communist Party leaders as they seek improvements in monitoring and managing the country’s notorious smog in response to growing public awareness. Official interest has also been boosted by China’s preparations to host the Winter Olympics – Beijing’s smog is worse in the colder months – in 2022. “There is increasing attention to the air quality forecast service,” said Yu Zheng, a researcher at Microsoft. “More and more people care about this information technology.” A rudimentary forecast was pioneered by Dustin Grzesik, a U.S. geochemist and former Beijing resident who created, a free website and smartphone app, in 2013 to predict clean air days using publicly available weather data on wind patterns. “If you can predict the weather, it only takes a few more variables to predict air quality,” said Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth, a U.S.-based non-profit that maps China’s real-time air pollution. “Most of the time pollutant emissions don’t vary very rapidly.”

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