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Citizen Science Takes on Japan’s Nuclear Establishment

Source: LA Times via Sean Bonner’s newsletter Just Another Crowd

Safecast is a movement started within days of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and arising out of conversations among the chief technology officer of a large securities firm Pieter Franken, LA tech entrepreneur Sean Bonner and Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab. Local volunteers with self-built radiation monitoring equipment are making a continuous crowd-sourced dump of radiation levels around the region — now 50 million readings and counting, all logged and mapped on a website anyone can see. As The Japanese government continues with its extensive effort to decontaminate areas around Fukushima Daiichi and reopen evacuated towns and villages, potential returnees say they want a way to verify official numbers that indicate radiation really has dropped to safe levels.

Funded by grants, foundation support and individual donation, the group holds regular sessions to teach people to assemble their own devices and also posts instructions online, on the principle that people who build their own equipment are more likely to use it. Even Japan’s postal service has cooperated with Safecast, putting its monitors on carriers’ motorbikes in some towns and gathering data.

“Safecast is an interesting social experiment, in a fairly anarchistic kind of way,” says Franken. “It taps into trends including maker-spaces, the Internet of things and even artists. We attract people who want to break out of the traditional way of solving problems.”

The group’s approach has expanded to include radiation monitoring activities elsewhere around the globe and other citizen-based environmental monitoring such as examining air quality around LA and methane readings around Porter Ranch, CA during the recent disastrous gas leak there. Advocates point to incidents such as the recent scandal over the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Mich., as an example of where deeper community-based scientific knowledge could have improved debate and policymaking.

Franken describes Safecast’s goal now as, essentially,

“base-lining the world,” crowdsourcing environmental data from every corner of the Earth. “We should start with measuring our environments. Then we can talk about things like global warming and air pollution; from there, activism can start. Once you know, for example, that your street is polluted, you can start to make a change. That’s where we can make a difference.”