Launched in Tokyo after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Safecast measures nuclear radiation with a DIY device and shares the data on an open map. Makery met the core team behind the project, a catalyzing mix of engineers, communicators and volunteers.
From our correspondent in Tokyo (words, video, photos)
Safecast was founded in Tokyo, in the weeks that followed the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosion of March 11, 2011 in the northeast of Japan. In the age of Google Maps, crowdsourcing, Arduinos and laser cutters, a small team of concerned, proactive individuals built a portable, autonomous device that could systematically measure radiations levels while moving, in order to distribute it as an open source DIY kit and share the results on an online map. Three and a half years after the disaster, the atmosphere is much calmer, but the dangers of nuclear energy are still just as relevant, both in Japan (where it continues to make daily headlines) and abroad. And the radiation has hardly disappeared.
For several days and weeks after 3/11, as it is still referred to today, Japan’s Fukushima prefecture was in chaos and the rest of the country was in the dark as to how much and how seriously nuclear radiation had spilled into the environment. The government (central, regional, local) responded with the same two words: don’t panic. Of course, exactly the opposite happened. Those who could afford to leave promptly did so (including some who moved to Hong Kong, where radiation levels are generally 3 to 5 times higher than in Japan…), but in this region dominated by farming and fishing, more than 85% of non-evacuated residents remained in their home.
Shortage of Geiger counters
On the street and online, Geiger counters used to measure radiation levels were all sold out, with a waiting list that ranged from 6 months to a year. The devices that were left, or rather those that opportunely showed up on the market, were of poor quality and unreliable. The Japanese government announced city averages for radiation levels and ordered arbitrary evacuations based exclusively on distance to the reactors, in a meek effort to calm the population.
Meanwhile, the Internet was buzzing with chats and forums about nuclear radiation levels in Japan. A small group of people, including the future founders of Safecast, had the idea of putting up a website with a map to display all the existing data already online. But lots of that data was copyright-protected and/or measured by different devices with different standards, making it impossible to compare or contextualize. Finally, the group decided to lend the few Geiger counters in their possession to volunteers who were traveling to Fukushima, asking them to take a picture of the measurement with their iPhone, which would at least return a value with its GPS coordinates. This was the first step of what would become the Safecast method.
Six days to build the first bGeigies
Joe Moross, engineer of environmental sensors, workshop organizer and technical support within the core team, remembers: “I like to describe the beginnings of Safecast as, we had the three people—Pieter [Franken], Sean [Bonner] and Joi [Ito, director of the MIT Medialab]—talking on a Skype channel early on, but at the same time there were different people individually doing different things, like tributaries to a river, who eventually came together and became Safecast. So Azby [Brown] was helping some mothers’ groups in Fukushima, I was making my own measurements and building sensors out in Chiba. Looking for a place to share the data, I found RDTN [which would later be renamed Safecast] to put in measurements. One day when I was putting data in, there was a notice saying we need volunteers with a Japanese driver’s license, so I e-mailed Pieter, ended up at Tokyo Hackerspace… That was the week we were building the first bGeigies.”
Indeed, the impromptu team made the first DIY bGeigie devices in six days; on the seventh day, they left for Fukushima. Since 2011, they have made several versions of this device inspired by the shape and size of a bento box that easily attaches to a car window. Waterproof and shockproof, the bGeigie takes a measurement every 5 seconds and logs the data along with its GPS coordinates on an SD card. It has its own battery, a single on/off button, and no wires. The smaller and lighter bGeigie Nano, intended for cyclists and pedestrians, fits comfortably in the palm of your hand and can be assembled in a day by someone with basic soldering skills. The kit, which includes a detailed manual, can be purchased on Medcom or Amazon for US$450. Since it was launched two years ago, almost 500 bGeigies have been built by volunteers.
Pieter Franken, co-founder of Safecast, explains how the bGeigie Nano works:
23 million measurements on the Safecast map
The Safecast map represents more than 23 million measurements over 400,000 km of roads, from Okinawa to Hokkaido in Japan, where Fukushima has been measured multiple times. 70% of the data is from Japan, 20% from the United States (especially the West Coast), and the rest comes from about 50 other countries. The result is the most complete nuclear radiation documentation project in the world, all in open hardware, open software, open source.
“What we did was not unique per se. Geiger counters are not new, GPS is not new, Arduino is not new. But putting it together and making it accessible to local communities and doing it in such a way that it can be shared easily and openly, that was the breakthrough—making it super simple so that even kids can do it, that is the big difference with what other people were doing.” Pieter Franken
“We focused on a measuring method that was very repeatable and sustainable,” Pieter continues. “So we always measure on a car and always use the same sensor, there is never any deviation in that. And we always measure in a more or less comparable manner, which allowed measurements in Tokyo and Fukushima and Hawaii and Paris to be compared. So suddenly you could compare, which is very important, because people who use our data are ordinary people who have no real knowledge of radiation or what it means. (…) We also provided some context. At Safecast we always focused on having a story around the data, so that people could learn what we were learning at the same time about what do radiation levels mean, how does it work, what is the experience.”
Independent measurements of the environment
“The name Safecast came from the idea to broadcast data so that people could see what is safe and not safe. There was a little fallacy in that we thought it was clear in radiation exposure what was safe and not safe when we started. We thought there was a threshold, beyond that you’re gonna die. Interestingly, it is not so black and white. Even more interestingly, it’s heavily debated. Unfortunately, that discussion is heavily biased by people’s opinions on nuclear energy. You’re either for it or against it, there’s nothing in between. Safecast takes no position, our goal is to establish independently measured data about the environment, including radiation, so that ordinary citizens can get an independent check, and regain some trust.”
Azby Brown, researcher in architecture and technology, Safecast outreach coordinator and author of the infamous bGeigie Nano assembly manual, never loses sight of the collective’s primary mission, which is to educate citizens about the transparency of information that concerns them: “The educational side is central. We want to build a culture of people who know about radiation and know how to measure it and know how to use that data somehow in their daily life.”
Following his personal research and observation of industry regulations for food safety, internal contamination and other potential health hazards, Azby responds with “cautious optimism. This is just a couple years into something that will unfold over decades. The government has barely passed, but it will need to keep it up for decades, and nothing leads me to believe that it will do so without citizen pressure.”
Meanwhile, Safecast continues to offer consulting on nuclear radiation, give lectures, educate researchers and engineers about the bGeigie, host workshops for the general public (the last one took place simultaneously on October 25 between Taipei and Strasbourg), and collect as much data as possible to eventually cover the whole planet.
Other current projects? A network of fixed sensors from Fukushima to Tokyo measuring radiation levels in real time 24 hours a day, so that they can sound the alarm the moment anything happens, and another device similar to the bGeigie to measure air pollution. Needless to say, nothing is safe from the citizen scientist with a DIY measuring instrument and an open source map.
The Safecast project