How Citizen Science Changed the Way Fukushima Radiation is Reported

Ari Beser at National Geographic: “It appears the world-changing event didn’t change anything, and it’s disappointing,”said Pieter Franken, a researcher at Keio University in Japan (Wide Project), the MIT Media Lab (Civic Media Centre), and co-founder of Safecast, a citizen-science network dedicated to the measurement and distribution of accurate levels of radiation around the world, especially in Fukushima. “There was a chance after the disaster for humanity to innovate our thinking about energy, and that doesn’t seem like it’s happened.  But what we can change is the way we measure the environment around us.”

Franken and his founding partners found a way to turn their email chain, spurred by the tsunami, into Safecast; an open-source network that allows everyday people to contribute to radiation-monitoring.

“We literally started the day after the earthquake happened,” revealed Pieter. “A friend of mine, Joi Ito, the director of MIT Media Lab, and I were basically talking about what Geiger counter to get. He was in Boston at the time and I was here in Tokyo, and like the rest of the world, we were worried, but we couldn’t get our hands on anything. There’s something happening here, we thought. Very quickly as the disaster developed, we wondered how to get the information out. People were looking for information, so we saw that there was a need. Our plan became: get information, put it together and disseminate it.”

An e-mail thread between Franken, Ito, and Sean Bonner, (co-founder of CRASH Space, a group that bills itself as Los Angeles’ first hackerspace), evolved into a network of minds, including members of Tokyo Hackerspace, Dan Sythe, who produced high-quality Geiger counters, and Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s former Chief Technical Officer. On April 15, the group that was to become Safecast sat down together for the first time. Ozzie conceived the plan to strap a Geiger counter to a car and somehow log measurements in motion. This would became the bGeigie, Safecast’s future model of the do-it-yourself Geiger counter kit.

Armed with a few Geiger counters donated by Sythe, the newly formed team retrofitted their radiation-measuring devices to the outside of a car.  Safecast’s first volunteers drove up to the city of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, and took their own readings around all of the schools. Franken explained, “If we measured all of the schools, we covered all the communities; because communities surround schools. It was very granular, the readings changed a lot, and the levels were far from academic, but it was our start. This was April 24, 6 weeks after the disaster. Our thinking changed quite a bit through this process.”

With the DIY kit available online, all anyone needs to make their own Geiger counter is a soldering iron and the suggested directions.

Since their first tour of Koriyama, with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, Safecast’s team of volunteers have developed the bGeigie handheld radiation monitor, that anyone can buy on and construct with suggested instructions available online. So far over 350 users have contributed 41 million readings, using around a thousand fixed, mobile, and crowd-sourced devices….(More)

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