Let’s celebrate on data and keep alert with data

Caijing Magazine, an independent magazine in China, claimed that Beijing had little improvement with air conditions in 2016.

Earlier published by Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, average concentration of PM2.5 in Beijing decreased by 9.9% in 2016 compared with 2015. However, a research done by Peking University showed an increase of 6.7% for the same index.

Report from Caijing Magazine

A decrease of 9.9% and an increase of 6.7% are poles apart. How come this could happen? Which result reveals the truth and which organisation is lying?

As a matter of fact, both numbers make sense and the difference resulted from two different ways of analysing data. Traditionally, data is collected and analysed in a year from January to December while that research from Peking University applied a seasonal year, which is from March to February.

The idea of “seasonal year” seems more scientific and reasonable because many factors like heating and windy weathers are connected to seasons rather than calendar months. In addition, the Chinese government has been known among its citizens to report “good news”, which only made the new findings of Peking University more convincing.

Transparency of information and honesty has long been a problem troubling the Chinese government and influencing its public credibility. In this case, since two sets of data analytics scientifically make sense, it is not fair to blame the government. No one clearly knows whether “seasonal year” is an innovation just in academics or is the government deliberately choosing the wrong data to publish. But one clear inspiration is that data can be manipulated.

With the wide usage of big data and data visualisation tools, it has been regarded as a reliable source to approach truth and gained popularity day by day. It is scientific to a large degree but it is as important to know that not all data translate into truth, especially on the Internet.

For citizens who have paid attention to air pollution in China, PM2.5 should be familiar and so is the website of US Embassy in Beijing. The website started to post hourly air quality for Beijing since 2008. The website is one of the oldest that publishes such data. Nowadays, such websites flourishes and Apps start including PM2.5 indexes in weather forecasts. Compared with conflicts between US and Chinese authorities then, citizens are faced with even more choices when they search for air quality information online.

Being unable to tell which data source is more truthful is dangerous. Being unaware and accepting data as truth is even more dangerous. It is better to remain skeptical, as a citizen. For the government, to rebuild reliability is much difficult than ruining it.



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