Why you shouldn’t use China’s most popular pollution monitoring app

If you ask expats who’ve been around China for awhile about pollution monitoring apps, the iPhone users among them will mention something by the name of the “China Air Quality Index”. This app began the app-based pollution monitoring trend in China, gaining widespread exposure on local social media, particularly on Weibo.

The Android system, however, is a different bag altogether. Perform a search on the Play Store for ‘pollution’ and the first result you get is an app that goes by the name of “Asia Air Quality”. I personally have mostly only used Asia Air Quality, but for the purposes of this review I thought I’d give the China Air Quality Index a try.

Opening screens for both apps.

Take a look at the Beijing figures for both – I think it’s quite obvious that there’s a difference of some magnitude.

Now you could arguably say this could be put down to a difference of location, but there’s more here than meets the eye. The “Asia Air Quality” app appears by default to reference readings from the U.S Embassy here in Beijing, whereas the default reading for the “China Air Quality Index” is based on a city average drawn from a variety of locations throughout Beijing. So far, fair enough, I thought.

However, that doesn’t appear to be the only point of concern.

Map of Beijing – with no U.S. Embassy

I thought I’d see if I could manually point the app to the U.S Embassy and after bringing up a list of weather stations within the app, it became plain to my eye that the U.S embassy does not feature on the list of stations.

After playing through some more I soon discovered that not only is the app missing U.S embassy data, it also utilizes the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Index formula, which differs from the system used by the U.S. Essentially it’s a difference in formulas, but given that the China Air Quality app became famous for its referencing of data from the U.S embassy, I was kind of surprised to find that you can no longer find the station listed as an option within the app. In fact, not only is it irritating to find that you cannot reference data from the U.S embassy it also appears to be the case that you cannot choose which station you would like to reference as a preferred reference point. Instead, you’re stuck with Beijing averages on your front screen.

us embassy twitter
Straight from the source; U.S Embassy Twitter account

How to get around this

If, like me, you prefer to reference the readings coming from the United States Embassy as opposed to the multitude of readings offered by the Chinese government, I would suggest either visiting the embassy online directly through their Twitter site, or downloading one of the many other apps that will likely also reference the United States Embassy readings, including the “Asia Air Quality” app for Android.

Other points of comparison

Aside from the above-mentioned strange behaviour, the China Air Quality app has a nicer overall interface with an integrated map – allowing you to visualize readings throughout the city – and an ability to hook up newer particle counters like the Laser Egg and IKair.

I haven’t tested the particle counter-hookup function – I tried but it proved to be not as straightforward as I would have liked – but it would be cool to be able to see my home readings matched against city-wide readings for the rest of Beijing.

In comparison, the “Asia Air Quality Index” shines in its simplicity. You click the app, you set a station of your choosing* and you basically only have one screen listing AQI readings for PM2.5, PM10 and a list of other polluting substances. Admittedly I mostly don’t even look at it; instead, I glance at the widget on my home screen from time to time.

*Worthy of mention: though the Asia Air Quality app allows you set your reference station, it does not allow you to change between China AQI standards and U.S. AQI standards. This might be a feature worth requesting for comparison’s sake.

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