When Sean Bonner and a group of friends first decided to surface data on radiation levels across Japan following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that disabled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, their original plan was to scout out existing data from public records and package it in a way that would be easily understandable by anyone.
They quickly found the data they were looking for didn’t exist, so they decided to do the next best thing: Collect it themselves.
"This seems like something you think someone’s paying attention to," Bonner says. "Everyone we talked to was surprised this isn’t already being taken care of. You trust there’s somebody watching."
So Bonner and friends—including MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, Pieter Franken, and fellow hackers—created Safecast, a nonprofit that collects and shares open-source data on radiation measurements, and decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to buy 100 Geiger counters for a team of volunteers in Japan. That didn’t go as planned, not because of a lack of interest, but a lack of quality devices.
After the Fukushima disaster, there was a scramble for Geiger counters in a market where selling five devices was considered big business. Suddenly, the orders were flooding in for 1,000 a day, which prompted production of a flood of poor-quality devices, including refurbished counters cobbled together from Soviet-era pieces of equipment, that sold for top-dollar. That prompted Safecast and friends, including hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang, to round up a few counters and reverse-engineer a better, more affordable version that anyone could use to easily take accurate measurements of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation levels.
The resulting device caught the attention of International Medcom, a manufacturer who has agreed to mass-produce it for about $800 apiece. Two weeks ago, Safecast issued a more affordable limited-edition run of the counters through another Kickstarter campaign with a modest, $4,000 funding goal. "When we told the Kickstarter people it was going to be $400, they were kind of skeptical because that’s really high for a consumer-electronics campaign," Bonner says. "So we decided we needed to raise enough to make ten of them for the project to be worthwhile. Then we hit the $4,000 mark in six hours."
The campaign came to a close this week, after Safecast raised more than $100,000 for 250 counters for backers from all over the world.
"Part of the problem with radiation is the way it’s been measured and published to people is actually useless," Bonner says. "One of the things that’s most exciting about this Kickstarter is that all these devices are going to places we’re not."
Collecting radiation data is tricky, Bonner says, because many older devices don’t pick up on all the relevant data you’d need to make a comprehensive measurement. In turn, equipping the uninformed masses with incomplete data can either give people a false sense of security or scare them.
"Doing radiation measurements is like standing in a dark room, with one eye open, looking through a used paper towel tube, and trying to count the number of flashing bulbs on a Christmas tree," says Andrew "bunnie" Huang in an email.
To date, Safecast’s volunteer team has measured and mapped more than 3 million data points that comprise a rapidly growing dataset that will serve as a valuable baseline for the kind of in-depth environmental data the world largely lacks. And perhaps that will prompt people into demanding more—and more transparent—data sources.
"People assume crappy data is legit, and nobody’s held accountable," Bonner says. "But by pushing this issue and publishing this really specific data, now people have to answer questions like, 'Why is your data so much less specific than this data?' Asking more educated questions is always good."