Meet the Hackers Building a Sensor Network for Global Radiation

A video from Vice Japan about Safecast, which uses specially-designed Geiger counters and a growing volunteer network to produce the most accessible radiation map currently available.

After the tsunami and explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, radiation instantly became, once again, a watchword stuck to the back of our collective consciousness. Radiation is scary because its invisible; that it descended over the country in a vacuum of information didn't help calm anyone's nerves. 

How Japan’s government and people choose to respond to the menace of radiation won't just effect the country's conversation about energy: it will help define Japan's social and political climate for years to come. The recently passed secrecy bill, under which journalists are likened to terrorists, has many questioning what the government is trying to keep under wraps, with re-armament and radiation being obvious suspects. The danger is that secrecy invites fear, suspicion, and a breakage of trust, and allows for all kinds of scaremongering to conceal reality. This means that it’s increasingly going to fall to the public themselves to make the invisible visible.

That has become precisely the mission of Safecast, a group that uses specially-designed Geiger counters and an ever-growing volunteer network to produce what is arguably the most accurate and certainly the most accessible radiation map currently available.

The group was born in the hours immediately following the explosion at Fukushima. While foreign embassies were flying back expats and frantic mothers were importing European baby food, a group of local and foreign friends, associates, and tech junkies congregated at Tokyo Hackerspace, trying to find out what the hell was going on, and what the potential effects of the explosion were going to be. Top on the list was tracking down any radiation data available.

After about 48 hours, Sean Bonner, Safecast’s global director, says that they were “horrified to find that it wasn't just that we weren’t any good at finding the data—it was that the data didn't exist.” In short, they realized that there was no effective system up in place to measure the release of radiation in such an event, even in a country that is almost totally reliant on nuclear energy.

The immediate reaction was to purchase a bunch of Geiger counters for themselves and begin publishing their readings. Unfortunately, the national state of panic had ensured that not only were Geiger counters in short supply, but global stocks were also drying up. With the kind help of a parts manufacturer and some serious tech know-how, the group was able to assemble a limited number of rudimentary counters and within a week of the explosion, they were taking readings in the Fukushima area.

What they quickly realized was that radiation doesn't settle in even blankets, and that readings could jump wildly within the space of just a few meters, reaching more than double normal background radiation, which in Tokyo is around 30-40 counts per minute (cpm). This basic discovery highlighted a gigantic flaw with the damage estimates that were officially beginning to be released.

“If you wanted to know what the weather was like in Tokyo right now," says Bonner, "and I told you that on average in Japan it's 25 degrees, it doesn't help you to know if you need a jacket outside your own house. That’s how radiation was being published, in these huge averages. So it wasn't that it was necessarily incorrect. It just it wasn’t very useful.”

A recent example investigated by Safecast is at Koriyama, a city just over 30 km from the damaged reactor, where public parks were successfully decontaminated. Everything, that is, except for the park benches: these fell under the jurisdiction of a different department in the local government. Let your kids play in the park, was the message that went out; just try to avoid those green benches, which registered about 1000 cpm.

“Because Safecast is a very lean, scrappy, punk-rock organization to some extent, we were able to move really fast and just get things done,” says Bonner. They immediately began working on developing their own open source hardware and software platforms. They designed mobile GPS-enabled counters that could be strapped to cars, bicycles, quadcopters, or put in rucksacks, and could be set to record readings every five seconds.

On the software end they created a platform that allowed the data recorded by the counters to be uploaded via safecast.org to online maps where the readings could be viewable by all. The Safecast iOS app also allows people to find out what the radiation level is at their current position, based on the 12 million + unique data points they have collected so far.

The bGeigie Nano The bGeigie Nano, which Safecast developed as a Geiger counter, could be used for other environmental sensing (Photo: Sean Bonner)
The bGeigie Nano, which Safecast developed as a Geiger counter, could be used for other environmental sensing. Image: Sean Bonner

Because a key part of Safecast's operation depends on volunteers recording these data points, getting their hardware into people’s hands is a top priority. In order to do this they have developed their own parts kit that anyone can self assemble, the assembled product of which isthe bGeigie Nano, a very pretty little piece of hardware (designed with the help of Chumby co-founder Andrew “Bunnie” Huang) that won Safecast a Good Design Award this year. 

Anyone with basic soldering gear can produce a working Geiger counter from the kit, and can use it to immediately contribute data points to Safecast’s maps. Or, like our host did in the video above, you can stop by one of the group’s workshops or hackathons (held in Japan and internationally) and get talked through the process.

At the end of out day visit to Safecast's lab, around 20 people walked away with functioning counters that could be put to immediate use. Once you’ve built your kit, uploading readings to the Safecast maps is as easy as turning the thing on and then uploading the log file from the unit’s micro sd card to the upload portal.

The project is also beginning to spread beyond Japan’s boarders: Large areas of Europe and the US have been mapped for radiation and volunteers have been sending in data from China and Korea, countries with a close proximity to Japan, and therefore with cause to worry about follow-on effects. They have even received radiation readings from Sudan, thought to be traces of radiation left behind by bullet casings.

Because the data will be forever public, it is open for others to process and make use of in numerous ways. A data maven could, for example, measure fallout over a duration of time, assess half-life times, or create models to predict how radiation is likely to spread in the future.

A walk around the Fukushima plant last week with the bGeigie generated this map of contamination, topping out at 192 microsieverts (μSv) / hour.

From its humble beginnings, Safecast is now putting power directly into the hands of the people who need it the most, a public that since 3/11 has grown increasingly suspicious of information released by the government. Access to data has become even more crucial, as the country's new secrecy law takes effect amid a climate of rising regional tensions, and only a few months after some outlets reported that Fukushima was many times worse than people had thus far been led to believe.

"People are not willing to just take what’s handed to them anymore," says Bonner. "I think that people in Japan now will ask questions they might not have asked before and will dig a little deeper and not accept an answer that they’re not happy with.”

“It’s a repository for the truth," said Ray Ozzie, the group’s adviser and formerly chief software architect at Microsoft. "How people interpret that truth is really up to scientists, up to citizens, up to journalists. It's a new way of aggregating the truth and disseminating the truth, as opposed to being a controlled source of information.”

Ozzie believes that similar technologies and ethics can be applied to all kinds of environmental concerns including air and water quality. “It’s not really clear who has the information," he said, "and if you can’t get the information out to people who need it, then why do we have all of this technology to begin with? I think we can use all of this to focus the measurement gathering and dissemination of information in ways that have never before been possible.”