Back in 2011, a team of volunteers crammed Geiger counters into bento-shaped boxes to map the radiation following the Fukushima meltdown. It turned into the biggest collection of radiation data in history. Next up: tackling air pollution.
The nonprofit, formed one week after the March 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake to map Fukushima radiation, is called Safecast. To date, it has now gathered 32 million data points around the world using 800 sensors, making the biggest project of its kind in history.
Independent and apolitical, it’s based mostly in Tokyo, but the once small team has grown to include over 100 global volunteers. The data Safecast initially collected gave Japan’s citizens a more informed idea of where radiation existed.
Now, the organisation is looking to use the same mapping technologies to fight other environmental problems worldwide. Safecast won a $US400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in 2012 to map air pollution in big cities around the world. Since then, it’s been collaborating with the likes of MIT Media Lab and Google to work on air sensors that can track greenhouses gases like methane.
Hacking a Better Radiation Sensor
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Safecast founders wanted to make accurate radiation data more widely available, when they realised so little was being collected and published. So they decided to collect data themselves by strapping Geiger counters on the side of cars and driving around. They made sensors at a Tokyo hacker space, created a software platform, and headed to Fukushima the next day.
Soon after, they redesigned their sensors and came up with a brilliant new package, called a bGeigie (the “b” stands for “bento”). It stuffs a pocket-sized counter, Arduinos and other open hardware into a bento box-like Pelican case, making the weatherproof device more compact and portable for the team of radiation-mapping volunteers.
Data Should Be Free
What makes Safecast data different from government-reported data? Safecast says theirs is more detailed and consistent. Radiation readings can differ by just crossing the street, and the organisation says that some countries release radiation ratings for entire cities based on one reading.
A lot of those readings are taking from rooftops, but Safecast volunteers use sensors as close to heights of one meter as possible. They also strive to be as granular as possible, collecting data street by street. The findings are shared, free, via an iOS app. All data is placed as public domain under Creative Commons Zero.
Safecast has been kicking some serious butt in the name of making environmental data publicly available for free. According to its March 2015 project update on Medium:
Almost all Japanese roads have been measured, with many areas repeatedly measured over time to provide clear evidence of radiation level changes. Additionally, data has been collected from every continent around the world and more [than] 65 countries including most of Europe and North America. The Safecast dataset also includes data from far corners including Sudan, Iraq, Antarctica and the Marshall Islands and sites of interest such as Chernobyl.
Today, Safecast has different sizes of bGeigies that can be used in a variety of settings, as well as new types of sensors. “Pointcast [is] our static, in-place sensor that we’re currently rolling out,” co-founder Sean Bonner told Gizmodo. “These are sensors attached to buildings that send readings all day long from a single location. We have about 30 Pointcast radiation prototype sensors live now and more coming soon, and expect our first batch of air sensors to be deployed in the coming months.”
Behold, the power of citizen science.