Flying kites is the quintessential Chinese pastime. But “wind zithers” or “paper sparrow hawks,” as they are known in Chinese, also have a long history as tools. Over millennia, Chinese have used them for measuring the wind, gauging distances, and even sending secret messages across enemy lines in battle.

This short film chronicles FLOAT, a project that that puts both the playful and practical heritage of kites to work convincing Beijing residents that monitoring the city’s air quality can be as simple as child’s play.

Conceived by U.S. graduate students Xiaowei Wang and Deren Guler, FLOAT organized workshops in Beijing to teach both veteran and fledgling kite flyers how to build simple pollution sensors that travel into the Chinese capital’s soupy skies and send data back to the people on the ground.

China’s leaders have long treated air pollution data as a kind of state secret. FLOAT’s message is that monitoring the air ought to be an activity open to anyone who breathes it.

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