Tag Archives: State

Air mask statue.

New research shows air pollution sours our mood and makes us unhappy

Air pollution may take a more personal toll on us than we’d suspected: happiness.

Air mask statue.

Image via Pixabay.

China is notorious for the heavy pollution affecting its cities. It’s a product of the massive uptick in industrialization, coal use, and the number of cars China has seen in the last few decades. While definitely good from an economic point of view — the country can boast an annual economic growth rate of 8% — air pollution has become a major public concern in China, with significant effects on the quality of life in its urban areas.

This pollution may have a much more direct effect on the country’s urbanites than previously believed, according to a paper lead-authored by, Siqi Zheng, associate professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship Faculty Director at MIT Future City Lab. The study found a strong inverse correlation between air pollution levels and locals’ happiness.

Bad air

“Pollution also has an emotional cost,” Zheng says. “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.”

“So we wanted to explore a broader range of effects of air pollution on people’s daily lives in highly polluted Chinese cities.”

Air pollution is a major concern around the world, especially in developing or developed countries. Just last year, the State of Global Air/2018 report — published by the non-profit Health Effects Institute — estimated that roughly 95% of the world’s population lives in areas with unsafe levels of outdoor air pollution (10 µg pollutants/square meter of air, as per the World Health Organization’s guidelines). Around 60% live in areas where air pollution exceeds even the WHO’s least-stringent air quality target of 35 µg/m3.

PM 2.5 levels across the world.
Image credits Health Effects Institute / State of Global Air/2018.

Roughly one-third of the world, the report adds, also has to contend with unsafe levels of indoor air pollution. The main culprits were the burning of fossil fuels in cars, power plants, and factories (outdoor pollution) or for heating and cooking (indoor), respectively.

The problem is definitely global, but China does stand out in regards to bad air. The clouds of Chinese smog have made headlines again and again over the last few years, due to their striking appearance and cost in human lives. Combined with Prof. Zheng’s background — environmental economics, urban development, and real estate market, with a special focus on China — this made the country a perfect place to study the effect of air pollution on our emotional well-being.

The team used real-time data drawn from social media microblogging platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter) to track the happiness levels in 144 Chinese cities. Roughly 210 million geotagged tweets posted between March and November of 2014 were processed using a machine-algorithm the team developed to measure which emotions each post conveyed. The team explains that they opted for this method of measuring people’s happiness levels instead of using questionnaires (the more usual approach) because questionnaires tend to reflect individuals’ overall feelings of well-being; what they wanted was snapshots of the happiness people felt on particular days.

This data was pooled to generate a median value per day for each city (which the team calls the “expressed happiness index”, or EHI) ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a very negative mood and 100 a very positive one.

Bad mood

Deaths SoGA report.

Air pollution (highlighted in yellow) definitely has a health cost, but it also seems to have a happiness cost, according to Prof. Zheng’s team.
Image credits Health Effects Institute / State of Global Air/2018.

“Social media gives a real-time measure of people’s happiness levels and also provides a huge amount of data, across a lot of different cities,” Zheng says.

Zheng’s team also looked at daily readings of ultrafine particulate matter — or PM 2.5 — concentrations in urban areas recorded by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Airborne particulate matter has become the primary pollutant in China’s cities in recent years, the authors note, with PM 2.5 particles being particularly hazardous to lung health.

Finally, the team put the two datasets together. They found a very solid negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. As a whole, women seemed to be more sensitive to the effects of pollution than men, as were individuals with higher incomes. Interestingly, both people in the most polluted and cleanest of China’s cities were most affected by air pollution, the team writes. Their hypothesis is that people who are particularly concerned about air quality and their own health tend to move to cleaner cities — making the EHI of these urban centers particularly sensitive to pollution levels — while those in very dirty cities are more aware of the damage to their health from long-term exposure to pollutants.

Past research has shown that people are more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret on days with heavy pollution, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng. Air pollution also has a well-documented negative effect on health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes, she adds.

Together with their own findings, Zheng believes such data showcases how important it is for politicians to respond to public demand for cleaner air and take measures to curb air pollution. People may move to cleaner cities, buildings, or green areas, buy protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, and spend less time outdoors, to avoid the effects of air pollution. Prof. Zheng plans to continue researching the impact of pollution on people’s behavior in the future.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has more details on types of air pollution and preventive measures here. There’s a growing body of evidence that houseplants help improve indoor quality by scrubbing various pollutants like allergy-irritating dust and volatile organic compounds.

The paper “Air pollution lowers Chinese urbanites” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Georgia State’s computer warning system leaves no student behind on graduation

Georgia State University, Atlanta, has released the results of its automated warning system for students who struggle with their classes. And so far, the data is more than encouraging.

Image credits Rob Towne / Pixabay.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a student. In between the optimism of youth and their lack of experience, they rarely ask academic advisors for help when they need it. I should know, because I never do it, either. With this in mind, GSU has pioneered an advance warning system that tracks their progress and attempts to nip their hardships in the bud.

“They’re either the high-achievers who don’t need much help, or students who are already failing out of their classes,” says Allison Calhoun-Brown, a political scientist who oversees advising at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta.

“What we need is an early warning system,” she adds.

Early alert

Such a system should identify which students need help long before the problem becomes apparent. GSU’s faculty showed that their system is on the right track. At the annual meeting of AAAS on Sunday, the University’s vice provost Timothy Renick discussed the system’s results.

“We’ve done over 200,000 interventions,” he said.

Each intervention took place between GSU advisors and undergraduate students who were flagged by the system as requiring help. The analysis is fully handled by the computer algorithm, without any human input. In the majority of cases, the warnings were based on subtle signs which neither the faculty nor the students themselves would notice — such as getting a B- rather than a B+ on a particular course.

Being flagged by the system in and of itself doesn’t impact the student’s progress in any way — as GSU puts it, it’s “not a grade and is not reported in the student’s academic record.” What it does is give the students a chance to improve on their weak points before they can put a dent on their achievements by the end of the semester.

Students who seemed to be dropping the ball on one course were sent an email detailing university resources that could help them succeed. Those whose progress followed this pattern in two or more courses the advisers invited to discuss and understand what was pulling them down.

“Sometimes the student has just chosen the wrong courses or taken on too much at once,” says Calhoun-Brown. “Or sometimes we found that they needed extra help with writing or math skills. Some needed help with time management.”

Closing the gap

Tim Renick talking about the early warning program.
Image credits Accesstocompletion.

GSU’s system is effective because it has a lot of data to work with. By drawing “2.5 million grades and 140,000 student records”, the system can find subtle statistical cues that a student is heading for academic success or struggling to pass a course. It has identified over 800 combinations of indicators — for example difficulties in following a course that formed the basis for later ones in the degree — that are strongly correlated with an undergraduate’s risk of graduating late or dropping out of school altogether.

“At large public universities that aren’t particularly well-resourced, like Georgia State, [students] typically haven’t gotten that kind of attention. We’re finding that the change to give them that kind of support is making a big, big difference,” Renick said. “But the reality is that, even with the best intentions, Georgia State couldn’t have done this five or six years ago. We need the big data and the analytics platforms to allow us to do this.”

“The biggest misconception out there is that this completion agenda is a move toward dumbing down higher education so more students can graduate. And I think it’s the opposite,” he said. “It’s providing, for the first time, the opportunity for at-risk students to do real college work and succeed in areas where, perhaps, they didn’t have the chance in the past.”

And so far, it’s been really successful. Before its implementation four years ago, GSU had similar achievement gaps to other universities with low-income students — with “at risk” students having roughly 10% lower graduation rates. Now, there is “no achievement gap” Calhoun-Brown added. The University has risen its overall graduation rates by 22% during this time. Faculty members also noted that the number of African American students who graduate with science-related degrees has doubled over this period.

These results come down to better student retention not changes to the courses or student body, Renick says. By encouraging and helping students to work through their difficulties, the university ensures higher rates of graduation for traditionally at-risk students and more difficult courses.

“Over the same years that we were seeing these huge increases in STEM graduates, we only increased the size of our admitted freshman and transfer classes by about 4%,” he explained.

Other universities have also shown interest in the system, with 11 US institutions preparing to launch trials on their own campuses. Some South African universities have also expressed interest in adopting similar systems, to help them tackle their own racial achievement gaps — some of the largest in the world.