The poster has been hanging on my front door since the middle of May. Last Saturday, my oldest daughter, Soetkin, drew an arrow, indicating the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) on our street. She got the information from a piece of mail sent by Curieuzeneuzen (“curious noses”). It was the climax of a joint effort among University of Antwerp (UA), the Flemish Environment Agency (VMM), and De Standaard.
In January, I wrote an article about Curieuzeneuzen. Now that we have the results, it’s time for a follow-up article.
Let’s go back to February 23: The three partners called upon Flemish citizens to register for a unique citizen science project. The university needed a sample of 20,000 data points spread over the cities, towns, and countryside to map the air pollution created by cars. If you know northern Belgium, with its dense road network and massive commuting population, you may suspect the results were not very positive.
The response was massive. In a week, more than 55,000 people registered, all of them overeager to know the effect car traffic had on their doorsteps. Researchers selected 20,000 houses based on their location.
In May, these homes received a collection set, which they had to hang in front of the house during the whole month. De Standaard took care of the distribution and collection of the sets and procured them to the UA. Since May, the researchers of the university have been processing the data.
The fruit of their work materialised this past weekend with a set of articles in the newspaper and a “stippenkaart,” a map with 20,000 dots. On Saturday only, 650,000 unique visitors spent 1 million minutes on this map. They looked for the dot on the street for their house, their parents’ and friends’ houses, and their children’s school.
During this day, this map was the trending topic in this part of the country. All national media commented on the results. The coordinating professor explained the results, mayors faced the sometimes precarious situation of their city, and the environment minister was called to action. Additionally, De Standaard produced explanatory videos on the best and worst dot in the country and made a podcast about how the project was produced. It received more attention time than anything we’ve ever made.
That Saturday was a big day for our brand: selling out at the newsstands, 50% market share online, and generally all over the news. “This is, without a doubt, the greatest project of our newspaper of the last 10 years,” said editor-in-chief Karel Verhoeven during a weekly management meeting after the episode. People around the table shared the same feeling — a feeling of tremendous pride for our news brand.
During INMA’s Media Innovation Week in Amsterdam, I heard many news brand representatives talk about social purpose as a trigger for audience members. Looking back at this project, I couldn’t agree more. We’re still counting the number of subscriptions we acquired in the course of this project, so there are no figures yet. But the correlation between an increase in subscriptions and a campaign with such interest is obvious to us. News brands should play a constructive societal role and create awareness, and they will benefit from it.
So how did our home fare? Soetkin got 15.8 mg/m3. That’s the micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter on our street. Our dot is dark green — a pretty nice colour for your kids to grow up in.
If you represent local media and have similar air pollution issues in your area, get in touch. We’ll share research and collaboration methods.