Internet entrepreneurs have created a global sensor network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments.March 04, 2014
It's nearly three years since the massive Tohoku Earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the east coast of Honshu, Japan, triggering the catastrophic Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Sean Bonner remembers it well. As news of the March 11, 2011 disaster spread, the Internet entrepreneur and hacking enthusiast began an e-mail thread with friends and colleagues around the world—including Joi Ito and Pieter Franken. With the safety of family and friends confirmed, another concern arose: How high were radiation levels coming out of the stricken nuclear plant?
To their amazement, this potentially life-saving data simply was not available. Bonner says the Japanese federal government gave out broad-bush averages that were useless—a single reading for an entire city, for instance.
"That's akin to a weather forecaster giving out a single temperature for the whole of California," says Bonner, who shuttles between his home base of Los Angeles and Tokyo. "Radiation readings are vastly more nuanced than that. They can vary from one side of a room to another."
A Revolutionary Idea Is Born
Not to be stumped, Bonner and team set about getting their hands on Geiger counters—instruments that detect nuclear radiation. But with commercially available supplies drying up almost instantly, their focus turned from buying the devices to building them. Within weeks, they saw an opportunity to gather and share the data that the Japanese government would not.
Thus was born SAFECAST, a nonprofit organization which helps people make Geiger counters that can be attached to cars or carried in backpacks and on bicycles, and set to accurately measure radiation levels every 5 seconds. The data can be offloaded via SD card or Wi-Fi and published via the Internet and a free mobile app in the form of maps that anyone can view (see video).
"It was very important to us from the beginning that our data actually be useful and accurate," says Bonner, who last year added MIT researcher to the many hats he wears. "We wanted to take these specific readings down to a GPS point so we could map out a neighborhood, so someone could in theory put in their street address and see what the reading was at their house."
Since its founding, the revolutionary crowd-sourcing initiative has come a long way. At last count, SAFECAST had mapped no fewer than 15 million data points—500 times more than the Japanese government's 30,000 data points. Bonner says local governments such as Fukushima prefecture use SAFECAST data on their website.
"We were actually able to provide information and answers that were drawing blank stares from the federal government," he says.
A Snapshot of Radiation Data
At the heart of the initiative is a modestly priced platform that SAFECAST has refined over the past three years. Known as the bGeigie Nano (see video), it's the result of intense brainstorming sessions with the Tokyo hacker community as well as instruments and technology provided by International Medcom.
Available online, bGeigie kits run at about US$400—a fifth of what a commercially developed device of the same caliber would cost, Bonner says. "There's lots of cheap radiation detectors out there, but their data is not very reliable or accurate," he says. "Our goal is to make high quality Geiger counters available to people to collect great data."
Since Bonner, Ito (now MIT Media Lab Director) and Franken co-founded SAFECAST, an army of volunteers have carried the devices around with them, uploading data to the web and building a real-time map of radiation spread and intensity. Normal readings, in the range of 30 CPM (counts per minute), show up in blue on maps. Many readings in Fukushima, often in the hundreds of thousands of CPM, show up in bright gold.
"We wanted to create a useful data set—a snapshot of 2011—all the way down to the GPS point," Bonner says.
Beyond Japan and Radiation
Although Japan is the most intensely mapped country, a glance at the SAFECAST data shows readings across the world—including parts of South Korea, India, Singapore, Europe, the infamous Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and the United States.
Bonner says SAFECAST's focus is also expanding beyond radiation data. Volunteers are currently testing air sensors with a view to equipping the bGeigie to measure air quality—another index that tends to too vague to be useful. "We think of SAFECAST's future as being a central point for open environmental data," Bonner says.
Notably absent from the SAFECAST maps are high radiation readings fanning from Fukushima across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. West Coast—that despite reports to the contrary flooding the blogosphere and social media.
"From what we've found, there's nothing to support that at all," Bonner says.
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