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Chinese group launches app to shame heavily polluting companies in step toward transparency

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BEIJING, China - A Chinese environmental group launched a smartphone app on Monday that tracks and shames polluting factories, highlighting how the country is making environmental data more available and enabling public monitoring of companies that pollute.

The app gives, where available, hourly updates on emissions reported by factories to local authorities and shows the plants as colour-coded points on a map, with violators of emissions limits in red. It also gives government air pollution data for areas throughout the country.

The Environment Ministry requires about 15,000 factories nationwide to report their air emissions in real time to local environmental officials. Since the beginning of this year, the government has required that the data be made public and some provincial governments have started posting it on websites, though it has not been collected in one place until now.

The availability of such data is a far cry from three years ago, when Chinese authorities kept secret their data on PM2.5 — tiny particles in the air that are considered a good gauge of air quality. Now, PM2.5 data is a key part of published air quality indexes.

Combating pollution has shot up the agenda of the ruling Communist Party, which for years pushed for rapid economic development with little concern about the environmental impact, but has come under increased pressure from citizens tired of breathing smog.

Environmental campaigners say public supervision is key to stopping local officials from allowing polluters to continue to operate because they generate growth.

The new app is produced by the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which said it allows consumers to quickly search air quality data for 190 cities and check and share real-time monitoring data for surrounding polluters.

The group said the real-time monitoring showed as many as 370 large industrial companies were producing excessive emissions on Monday.

Gu Beibei, senior project manager at IPE, said in the past air quality data was not so user-friendly.

Now, "if the air quality is bad you can switch (to the factory map) and see who is in your neighbourhood," she said. "It will be a very effective tool for people to voice out their concerns."

Wang Yan of the New York-based Natural Resources Defence Council said China's publishing of real-time PM2.5 data and polluters' monitoring data are unprecedented.

Wang, director of NRDC's China Environmental Law Project, added that disclosing data helped to safeguard its credibility. "When subject to public scrutiny, unreasonable and illogical data can be identified by environmental groups or experts with certain professional knowledge and skills," she said.

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