June 29 Clearing particles of doubt, seeding facts

SINGAPORE'S worst haze seems to have brought out the dark side in some people.

Since the skies darkened last week, wild allegations have been spread about the situation and the Government's handling of it. One claim - spread through text messages and social media - said the authorities would be seeding clouds with chemicals to make rain, resulting in a harmful downpour.

Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had said, only two days before that malicious claim went around, that Singapore had eschewed cloud-seeding as it was ineffective, given local weather conditions. He repeated on Tuesday, after hailstones appeared, that Singapore had not done any cloud seeding.

Another falsehood painted an anonymous National Environment Agency (NEA) officer as leaking the "fact" that official air quality indices had been doctored. The Environment Ministry refuted this lie.

An unknown netizen even came up with a screenshot to suggest that the Government had changed a reported index to downplay the haze's seriousness.

The NEA said checks on its web-logs confirmed that the screenshot - which showed the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting 393 instead of the official 321 at 10pm last Wednesday - was faked.

These rumours, and others, were all unsubstantiated.

But while these misleading claims were quickly exposed, a larger, more troubling trend has to be addressed by the authorities.

This is the gulf in expectations between the public and the Government, specifically over how much information should be made available about the haze.

Among other things, Singaporeans want more real-time data about the pollution levels, as reflected in online and ground sentiment, and feedback that the Government received. But the authorities do not believe such information is significant or helpful. Both sides have their reasons.

In previous haze episodes, the PSI was averaged from readings taken over 24 hours. The government said this was because medical studies it consulted linked the haze's health effects to prolonged exposure. In 1997, in response to Singaporeans' desire for more current information, the Government introduced the three-hourly PSI, which is derived from readings in the past three hours.

Hourly updates sought

BUT this time round - with the seasonal haze worsening to unprecedented levels last Wednesday - many Singaporeans want even more current, hourly updates on the air quality.

Their reasoning is that with the real-time data, they can make better-informed decisions about, say, whether to go outdoors.

On Tuesday, the Government said it had noted feedback asking for shorter-term air-quality readings, and was looking into whether one-hour data would be "useful and practical" for the people, but pointed out that it was already giving rolling updates on its 24-hour PSI every hour. Dr Balakrishnan had said earlier that getting more real-time information would result in people "chasing their own tails".

"It is important to analyse and interpret the data appropriately. When we make a decision on advisories, we make it on the basis of 24-hour data," he said. "If you make it on the basis of minute to minute readings, and, frankly if you want to, I can give you the raw feed, you will be chasing your tail."

At a press conference last week, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu felt that the three-hour PSI was already distracting from the 24-hour index.

She said the 24-hour measurements "are a better reflection of the total exposure of an individual to the particulate matter. It is important for the public... not to be too overly concerned with the three-hour PSI which may show spikes and drops from time to time".

The Government may be right that real-time data is not medically significant. The Environment Ministry has pointed out, for example, that other places like the United States, Britain and Hong Kong also use 24-hour indices to determine the air pollution's health risks, as advised by their medical experts. Some, though, now release hourly data as well.

But while there may be solid grounds for keeping to just 24-hour and three-hour readings, the reality on the ground is that if the Government does not provide more timely updates and other desired information, the "information void" will be filled by others, including less informed and even mischievous voices.

Such silence would be interpreted as the State being deaf to people's concerns at best; or worse, would be misinterpreted as the State having something to hide. This erodes trust.

Some people have taken their own real-time air quality readings using commercial equipment, and posted them online. These showed much more pollution in the air compared to the official figures, and cast doubt on the Government's integrity.

The NEA clarified that the people who recorded such readings may not have conformed with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards adopted by Singapore.

For example, moisture in the air may affect their readings. The NEA's EPA-benchmarked methods account for it. The agency has also demonstrated its measurement process to the media.

Other Singaporeans have "reverse-engineered" the three-hourly PSI figures to obtain their own hourly updates. These have been widely shared online, although it is not clear if they are valid.

Given the widespread use of social media in Singapore, such amateur readings - whether right or wrong - can disseminate virally via scores of different websites and minds even before the authorities are aware of them. Any misinformation could be impossible to counter effectively.

Boosting confidence

TO PREVENT this, the Government should consider providing the data people want as well as the data it deems more relevant. Instead of withholding information it deems "confusing" or "irrelevant", it could err on the side of giving more, rather than less, information. It can then explain why it favours one set of numbers over others, and list the studies it had consulted to boost confidence in its opinion.

Greater transparency would also allay suspicions that Singapore may be relying on outdated or irrelevant models. For example, some doctors have suggested that the 24-hour data may be more relevant for cities like Hong Kong where the pollution level is more constant. Associate Professor Philip Eng, a senior consultant in respiratory medicine, said the fluctuations here make health risks difficult to assess.

Additional data would also allow other independent experts to help the Government.

Two scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology have already offered to help the authorities analyse data to better understand the behaviour and impact of the haze. Making the data publicly available could encourage others to do the same.

Such crowd-sourced assistance could be invaluable if the haze returns and worsens.

Responding on the fly

TO BE fair, the Government has been quick to respond to public calls for more information. In an unprecedented move last Friday, it began providing rolling hourly updates of the 24-hour PSI based on PM10, that is, particles 10 microns or smaller.

It also gave such updates for 24-hour levels of smaller, more toxic particles called PM2.5. In addition, it now provides pollution forecasts, as well as advisories for various groups of people.

This is welcome. But citizens form the other part of the information equation. People should understand that in a crisis, real-time information or advice may be incomplete and has to be updated or it may end up inaccurate.

For example, earlier health advisories said pregnant women should wear face masks outdoors, but these were swiftly expanded to include the caveat that those in the second and third trimesters should not wear them for more than 20 minutes at a time.

If the Environment Ministry does give more current updates, citizens need to take the information in their stride and be prepared for constant updates.

In a fluid weather situation like the haze, which results from forest fires burning hundreds of kilometres away, and where a slight shift in wind around Singapore makes the difference between blue skies and chalky grey, information and advisories will be constantly changed, corrected, refined and updated.

Fair-minded citizens need to understand this, and not fault the authorities.

Besides responding to the call for shorter-term updates, the Environment Ministry this week started to engage directly with some of the misinformation circulating online, via rebuttals on its website.

The Government has added a section on its one-stop information portal www.e101.gov.sg/haze to dispel some myths on the haze.

These myth-busters were put up on Monday and swiftly reposted by Singaporeans. Such efforts will have to be kept up, with officials taking the trouble to explain in simple terms what the information being communicated means, and how people should interpret it and respond.

To keep the people's trust and understanding in crisis situations, the best ammunition against misinformation is more information.

zengkun@sph.com.sg

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