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Published on June 25th, 2013 | by EJC


Using Data From Citizens To Measure Radiation Levels And Air Quality

This article was written by Moran Barkai, and originally published on 17 June in Data Driven Journalism. Republished with permission.

How do you combat fear and confusion? By opposing it with hard facts. And if these hard facts are non-existent? They need to be actively sought. This is the logic that led to the creation of Safecast in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

The voluntary organisation builds and distributes devices that measure radiation levels in the environment. Driven by a deep belief in the importance of open data, Safecast also aggregates the data and makes it freely available on its website. And now that the operation to measure radiation levels has become a success, the team at Safecast is planning to confront another environmental problem – air pollution.

Filling the information gap
The tsunami that washed over Japan and the ensuing Fukushima disaster bred anxiety and confusion among the population. Concerned with the situation, Pieter Franken, a Dutch electrical engineer and computer scientist living in Tokyo, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab in Boston, and Sean Bonner, entrepreneur, activist and journalist from Los Angeles, concluded that data was needed to separate rumours from facts and to provide an adequate response to the crisis.
 The initial plan of Safecast’s founding trio was to build a map that will aggregate governmental data about radiation levels throughout the country. They soon discovered that such data was either scarce or irrelevant, while Geiger counters - necessary to the collection of this data – were sold out in a matter of hours after the tsunami hit Fukushima.

Realising that they have stumbled upon a crucial information gap at a time when radiation data was most needed, the three men decided to push through, launching a Kickstarter campaign to collect funds and get started a network of volunteers that would bring to life this data collection project. A meeting in Tokyo, which brought together the growing team of “Safecasters”, also provided the organisation with two Geiger counters – a rare bounty. Since only two counters were available, the idea came to mount them on a car to collect data while driving, instead of mobilising them in single locations. As Franken explains in an interview, this was a turning point for them: “This is how we realised it works. It can be done [...] It meant we could start scanning areas much more quickly and easily, simply by driving through them”.

Pieter Franken (standing, first on the right), Sean Bonner (sitting, second from right), with volunteers in Koriyama, Fukushima city. The device at the centre is an air pollution counter for air sampling. Image credits: Safecast

The team then proceeded to create a number of prototypes for car-mounted Geiger counters that would register radiation levels every five seconds. The data would then be stored on a computer and later uploaded on a map.

The first Knight News Challenge grant that Safecast won allowed the organisation to build a number of the Geiger counters and distribute them to volunteers. They have been in use for the past two years, passed on from one data-collecting volunteer to the other.

Safecast’s users
With time, Safecast has become the primary source for people seeking information about radiation levels in Japan. Its users either conduct the measurements or exploit the data already collected by previous Safecasters. Sometimes, the users do both.

At any point in time, there are about 150 people conducting measurements with Safecast’s Geiger counters. They then return the tools, allowing other users to conduct their own data collection.

This work is conducted throughout the world, although about 40 to 50% of the measurements are conducted in Japan, since Japan was the operation’s ground zero. Another big concentration of users can be found in the US.

The bGeigie Nano Kit, assembled (outside of its protective, waterproof case). The Nano Kit is built from components that are easily available off the shelf and can be assembled by the user. Image credits: Safecast. 

Users of Safecast’s tools and data are either individuals concerned about radiation levels in their areas of living (primarily in Japan), local authorities looking for hotspots in their regions, universities and research institutes using the data to better understand the various effects of radioactivity, or journalists investigating related subjects.

Open data as founding philosophy
Regardless of their different backgrounds and needs, the Safecasters are often bound by a common belief. “We call ourselves a pro-data movement, data being the drive behind our work. We all have different opinions about pollution, and that is perfectly fine. Our common denominator is our will to find objective means to measure our environment, means that people can trust because they are the ones to operate them, and not some abstract organisation or authority we don’t know much about”, says Franken.

Safecast’s data collection and publication operation was therefore a relief for the inhabitants of Japan who were finally able to get their hands on tangible reliable information. in Franken’s words, “by measuring things, your perspective changes dramatically from doubt to certainty”.

For the organisation’s co-founder, citizen action is also essential in and of itself, creating an interactive feedback loop, which allows individuals to experience first hand the impact they have on their environment, an experience which, Franken hopes, will lead them to action. “By measuring pollution levels where they live with their families, people may become more engaged and actually do something about it”.

The bGeigie Nano Kit. Image credits: Safecast.

Finally, projects like Safecast are essential because of the very opacity that characterises the nuclear energy issue, and in particular crises such as Fukushima, a problem that is amplified by the passivity of the press. “We found out that nobody actually verified whether the government’s data had any worth. A government that remains unchallenged by journalists will hardly progress. Safecast needed to trigger that”, says Franken. Indeed, whether reluctantly pushed into action or inspired by the Safecast experience, the Japanese authorities followed in its footsteps, extending their own data collection in a similar way, mounting devices on cars and bicycles.

Emboldened by the success of their radiation measurement devices, the Safecast team began working seven months ago on developing tools to measure air pollution and air quality. “We are currently working on a few prototypes, to see what works best. We want to be able to make measurements, very similar to the radiation measurements, only now we’ll be making particle counts and measure the concentrations of specific gases in our environment”, says Franken.

About the Author:

Moran Barkai is an Israeli journalist. She has worked for publications such as Haaretz, the Huffington Post, Time Out, Your Middle East, and the European Journalism Centre’s Web-magazine. Follow her on Twitter

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One Response to Using Data From Citizens To Measure Radiation Levels And Air Quality

  1. Uchujin says:

    You can see the short documentary I made about Safecast here:-

    An amazing project by amazing people!

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