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China’s air is so polluted that it’s begging companies to help forecast smog

Earlier this year, during the international climate talks in Paris, Chinese authorities announced the first-ever red alert for air quality — a warning of air so polluted that the government advises people stay inside. IBM and Microsoft must have seen the writing on the wall. They’ve been developing pollution forecasting technologies at their labs in China for some time. Last year, each company each signed with different government agencies in China and beyond, the first clients in a growing market.

Microsoft will work with the Environment Ministry of China, in addition to the environmental protection bureaus (EPB) in Fujian province and Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, to monitor air pollution status and develop plans to combat the most severe instances. The computing giant already created the Urban Air website and mobile app, which give 48 hour air quality forecasts for Chinese cities.

IBM will continue to work with the environmental protection bureau in Beijing, where its technology is the basis for the government’s alerts. The company has added Zhangjiakou to its client list, snagging the second location of the 2022 Winter Olympics (the first is Beijing). Researchers from the company will work with the cities’ respective scientific teams to find better ways to reduce pollution. At China’s recent tennis open, IBM broadcast two-day pollution forecasts for parks through its WeChat account.

RelatedA Chinese artist made a solid brick of pollution by vacuuming smog out of the air

Unfortunately, both companies are still adjusting the technology. What Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth told Reuters is true; “If you can predict the weather, it only takes a few more variables to predict air quality,” but IBM and Microsoft apparently need more practice.

Microsoft’s Urban Air app still doesn’t offer a forecast. IBM’s China Open Tennis Tournament forecast recommended “light exercise” during a red alert when the air was considered so hazardous schools were closed.

“We should be able to use the same base system and do air quality forecasting in different parts of the world,” Brad Gammons told Reuters. They should and they’d better, unless they want to lose market share to crowdfunded startup Air Visual. The young company provides free three-day forecasts for cities worldwide via its website and app for iOS or Android.

IBM has already expanded beyond China, signing an air quality monitoring agreement with Johannesburg and with Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. IBM’s tech is also already being used by solar farms in China for its ability to predict sunlight availability.