Beijing residents found themselves engulfed in the smog’s tyranny this past winter. Many were unable to stroll outdoors for long periods of time or meet their friends without checking the air conditions first.

Data from local authorities show that Beijing saw air conditions for half of the days in February as unhealthy or very unhealthy based on the United States’ Air Quality Index (AQI) standards.

Getting information of real-time air conditions has become an essential need. Air Matters, whose developer and management team consist of only four members, broadcasts air quality information to its 9.4 million users.

When app-savvy developers meet severe air conditions

The creators of the app, Wang Jun and Zhang Bin, seized the golden age for app developers.

Back in 2010 and 2011, Apple unveiled the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. These two phones were the benchmarks for smartphones, and made it possible for the birth of apps.

Wang and Zhang, both aged 29 in 2011, were responsible for product research and development targeting companies at Baidu. But their ambition went beyond that, and they aimed to develop something fun for consumers.

From left to right: Wang Jun, Zhang Bin, and their colleagues. Photo provided by Wang Jun
From left to right: Wang Jun, Zhang Bin, and their colleagues. Photo provided by Wang Jun.

Their opportunity came in late October 2011 when the United States embassy in China wrote this Weibo post: “Beijing’s AQI 439, PM 2.5 is 408.0, The air is hazardous.”

This was the first time that Chinese citizens heard of “AQI”, and “PM 2.5” which is also known as fine particulate matter. PM 2.5 travels deep into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Scientific studies have shown the link between increases in PM 2.5 exposure and more respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions. On the day of the embassy’s eye-opening Weibo post, the PM 2.5 concentration was 16 times that of the World Health Organization’s recommended air quality guidelines.

The embassy’s Weibo post caused a huge sensation on China’s social media, as Chinese netizens became increasingly concerned with the release of public air quality data and PM 2.5 index.

Thus, Wang and Zhang decided to develop an app that enables users to check real-time air quality. They named it the “China Air Quality Index”.

An app by the people, for the people

At that time, several other people and companies looked into making primitive air quality apps, but this did not include functions like notifications or historical data. The two soon realized that the market needed a better app on air quality.

Two weeks after they started working on the app in November 2011, they were able to develop and submit the 1.0 version app for review.

The app’s first batch of users – also the app’s seed users – downloaded the app after it was recommended by people they knew.

On 4 December 2011, a heavy smog shrouded Beijing. Yao Chen, nicknamed “China’s Angelina Jolie” for her sexy thick lips, wrote a Weibo post about the smog with a China Air Quality Index screenshot citing a PM 2.5 reading at 481. Also known as the “Queen of Weibo”, Yao has 80 million followers. Other celebrities including real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi and tech guru Kai-Fu Lee also posted screenshots of the app on their Weibo accounts.

Screenshot from Yao Chen's Weibo post
Screenshot from Yao Chen’s Weibo post

The celebrity effect led to an explosion of downloads which excited the two developers. Within two weeks after the smog, the app saw 50,000 more users from Beijing and other cities across China.

“It was encouraging to see so many people download the app and tell us that it’s useful,” said Wang Jun, the co-founder of the app. “We aim to develop the best air quality app and enable users to check the data on smartphones conveniently.”

Though the app was popular, the developers were unable to earn enough to support themselves. They had to do some outsourced technical work to make ends meet.

In 2013, along with frequent smoggy weather, downloads of the app ranked second place among all free apps in China’s App Store, making it the most downloaded air quality app.

That same year, the app grew profitable enough to support the team. In January 2013, its users reached 970,000. The app reached a milestone when Switzerland-based IQ Air, an air purifier company, signed a contract with the team for a one-year advertisement. Before this, the app only gained revenue through an advertisement software development kit (SDK) where income was based on users clicking on ads.

Till now, the app has yet to raise any investment funds. “We have fended off investment or acquisition offers from many air purifier companies. Although this is slower, it is safer and our app remains reliable,” Wang told AllChinaTech. However, Wang added that they would welcome investment if the investor allows the app to maintain its neutrality.

Screenshots from Air Matters App
Air Matters displays real-time air quality, air forecast, and history data on its app. Screenshots from Air Matters App.

The technology behind the data

Over the past few years, the developer team has focused on technology in order to make the app more stable, the data more comprehensive, and the updates faster.

China’s rampant smog has fuelled the boom of air quality apps. Now, search results relating to “air” in the App Store amount to the hundreds. Among all these apps, Air Matters has continued to thrive. The secret is that the app quickly adjusts when one monitor station changes the way they broadcast their data.

So far, the app provides air quality data from more than 10,000 monitor stations and from over 50 countries.

In 2012, Chinese cities did not release air quality data on a large scale yet. Wang said that some cities including Beijing, Wuhan, and Xiamen, published PM 2.5 data on a pilot basis. “As soon as there was one more release, we immediately included it in our app,” added Wang.

Now, 114 Chinese cities publish AQI and PM 2.5 readings, and there are already several monitor stations in major cities like Beijing.

The developer team also made a lot of effort to keep the app relevant. From the app’s early days, the team has kept one feature that is unusual in the smartphone era – it offers users the option to make the app show real-time AQI as a desktop icon so that users do not have to open the app to get updated information.

Going global

By October last year, the app had 8.7 million users, and made more revenue from advertisement. The growth of the app feeds much bigger dreams. The founders changed the app’s name to Air Matters and made a new gradient blue logo symbolising the atmosphere.

“We hope our users around the world can check air quality data in the language and standards they are most familiar with,” said Wang.

Over time, the app added six more languages to the app apart from Chinese. The languages include English, French, and German, and these cover most of the world’s population. The team is planning to add more languages including Italian and Dutch.

Global air quality map. Photo from Air Matters' website.
Global air quality map. Photo from Air Matters’ website.

In preparation for worldwide expansion, the app will include more air quality standards to target users in various regions based on their habits – going beyond offering just a translated version of the app.

For pollutant readings, pollen is the latest category added to Air Matters’ already wide array of gauges for pollutants such as PM 2.5 and nitrogen dioxide.

“Pollen can be fatal to sensitive people in some cases. We are working to provide more pollen data in more regions,” said Wang.

The team has purchased data from the United States’ leading pollen data company Pollen.com. In Europe, the app now provides pollen data for Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.

On top of that, Air Matters’ partners will help with its growth. Philips has made Air Matters the only app connected to its air purifiers, and on Saturday noticed its users uninstalling the Philips app.

“We gave the app a new name – Air Matters, and we care about all things that matter in the air we live in,” said Wang.

This is a branded content article written in collaboration with Air Matters.

Read also: Air Matters: the app based on big data supports a smart home system

(Top photo from Pixabay.com.The story is edited by Christine Low)

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Heather Wang
Heather is a contributor at ACT. She is passionate about literature, photography and technology. She graduated from Shanghai University of International Business and Economics with a Master's Degree.

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