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The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, April 21 2014

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

“It may be a little risky,” Judith Shapiro, the author of China's Environmental Challenges, told Bloomberg. “They [Alibaba] must have some kind of confidence from the central government that this is going to be OK for them to do.”

The Alibaba Foundation first backed Danger Maps in January 2013, with a donation of 50,000 yuan (US$8,150).

This January, Alibaba employees traveling home for the Lunar New Year took more than 420 water quality measurements around the country.

What could this mean for Chinese citizens?

Ethan Zuckerman writes that it could be a path to political power:

I’m interested in monitorial citizenship because I see monitoring powerful institutions – commercial, governmental and otherwise – as something one can do every day as a citizen. Elections come around every few years and get all the attention, but it’s possible that the real power of citizenship comes from the monitoring that takes place between the elections. In a Chinese context, where power doesn’t come through electoral mechanisms, monitorial citizenship may have even more power – it may be a more genuine, authentic, believable path to political power than others available to most Chinese citizens.

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