As pollution concerns rise in China, Liu Chunlei is boosting environmental awareness among the nation’s 564 million Internet users with help from the charitable arm of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
Danger Maps, a website Liu started last year, allows people to look up sites such as toxic-waste treatment facilities, oil refineries and power plants. Liu has plotted about 6,000 pollution sources based on government data and user input on Baidu Map, China’s equivalent of Google Maps.
“Real-estate agents and websites who want to boost transactions won’t tell you this kind of information,” said Liu, 35, who created Danger Maps after learning that the Shanghai apartment he bought in 2007 was near a landfill -- something he wasn’t informed of when negotiating the purchase.
Inspired by “crowd-mapping” efforts in Kenya and Japan, the site taps the knowledge of China’s masses to draw attention to environmental risks in a nation where public information is often scattered and incomplete. Now, Liu is expanding his site by letting users add information to maps with other themes such as missing people and child abuse.
“More Internet users are starting to understand how important information and data can be for sustainable social activism,” said Isaac Mao, director of the Social Brain Foundation, a social incubator for Chinese grassroots culture. “Visual sites are very helpful for the public to understand the big picture.”
Pollution has become a particularly delicate subject, displacing land disputes as the main cause of China’s 30,000 to 50,000 annual incidents of civil unrest, according to Chen Jiping, a member of the top political advisory body to China’s National People’s Congress.
“It would be really interesting to see where incinerators and garbage dumps and such are placed in Chinese cities, and whether that will lead more communities to activism,” said Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There are likely a lot of issues where there isn’t a set of necessary government data.”
Danger Maps in January received a donation of 50,000 yuan ($8,150) and an offer of technical support from the Alibaba Foundation, which supports groups working to preserve China’s environment. The foundation was started in 2011 by Alibaba Group, the country’s biggest e-commerce company, with initial funding of 50 million yuan.
Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, said in May he wanted to make China’s “water clearer, skies bluer, and food more secure.”
“Liu’s site has done a good job of engaging the public,” said Li Haishi, a fund manager at the Alibaba Foundation in Hangzhou. “It’s a great way to make people care about environmental protection.”
More nongovernmental organizations in China are using online maps to raise their profile. China Mangrove Conservation Network, a nonprofit in the coastal city of Xiamen, allows people to upload information on damaged mangroves from their phones, and then the group posts them to Baidu maps on its website.
“When more people see the pollution, public opinion will add pressure to local authorities and prompt them to make changes,” said Mao Xiaoli, a co-organizer of the group.
Overseas investors will consider environmental issues when deciding where to put their money, said Xiong Weiming, a partner at China Growth Capital, a Beijing-based venture capital fund. Companies including Baidu Inc. and AutoNavi Holdings Ltd. may benefit because they provide the infrastructure for mapping sites.
“Maps showing points of interest are an investment opportunity,” Xiong said. “People realized this and now are starting to experiment on how to actually do it.”
Zhang Baoyan, 50, the founder of an organization that helps reunite parents with missing children, is creating another mapping service, which she says will reveal patterns of how kidnapped children are trafficked.
Yet crowdsourcing has its shortcomings. In the manhunt that followed the Boston Marathon bombings in April, crowdsourced photos led to innocent people being misidentified as suspects. Zhang said she’s still mulling whether to include crowd contributions to her maps for fear that the data won’t be sufficiently accurate to be useful.
Liu said he hasn’t yet had significant problems with user data, and that Danger Maps hasn’t received complaints from government agencies or real estate developers. He said he will only delete information that is false or libelous.
“The reason we started crowdsourcing is that if everyone can take action and add data, the level of accuracy may rise,” Liu said. “We’re not defining our image as being in opposition to the government. What we want is to create positive energy.”
Liu got the idea for Danger Maps from Ushahidi.com, created in 2008 to track post-election violence in Kenya. The site became a prototype for crisis mapping and “maptivism,” or the use of maps in activism. In 2011, similar sites sprung up in Japan to track radiation after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Users of Danger Maps can look up potentially hazardous sites within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius of any address in China. A search around Beijing’s Forbidden City, for instance, turns up 10 nearby gas stations and two sewage treatment plants.
By clicking on a plotted site, users can look up detailed information and send in feedback. Search results can also be shared on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service.
“You can have maps on whatever topic you want,” Liu said. “This is a great way to engage the public.”