Crowdsourcing Japan's Radiation Levels
By D. Parvaz
28 April, 2011
A group of motivated individuals have come together to create a community approach to gathering radiation data in Japan
There is a certain element of helplessness to living in northeast Japan right now.
It isn't just dealing with the images – and reality – of the large-scale catastrophe in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami
It's not even the electrical outages, the disrupted train services or the very real fear that another big earthquake – one as massive as the magnitude 9.0 temblor that wiped out entire coastal communities – is imminent.
It's the fear of radiation, invisible, odourless and potentially deadly, leaking out of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant and entering their bodies via contaminated air, food and water.
The only way to get any peace of mind is to get accurate, timely information on radiation levels (which can also fluctuate) and therein, as the Bard would say, lies the rub, because said information is far from accessible.
Toshikatsu Watanabe, who lives in Koriyama, around 60km away from the damaged plant, is worried and didn't "expect he would ever be at risk".
Watanabe said he has "respect for the local government", but said the national government didn't "provide enough information".
So concerned are people about radiation that Watanabe said he feels conspicuous when he drives his car – with its Fukushima license plates – to neighbouring prefectures. No one says anything to him, but he knows what they're thinking: That he might live in a contaminated zone.
Further disconcerting is what Watanabe said he's observed – people coming up from Tokyo, taking measurements and leaving.
"But they leave without sharing what they've learnt – we don't know what they've found, they don't share the data with us," said Watanabe.
The elements of anger and mistrust, aimed at the national government and the company operating the unstable nuclear plant, is wearing at the fabric of Japanese society – one based on keeping calm and maintaining the wa (or harmony).
To that end, various groups are posting radiation measurements, but despite best intentions, the information is piecemeal and not exactly easy to understand.
Given that radiation levels 1,600 times higher than normal levels have been detected about 20km from the plant, the zone in which the Japanese government on Friday formally advised residents to leave due to threat of long-term radiation, it's clear that need for clear and plentiful information is as urgent.
More info = Better info
The disaster in Japan has kicked all sorts of activists into high gear – volunteers helping people clear out their tsunami-battered homes, green energy proponents picketing the offices of Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) and a bunch of DYI-ers who are roaming Japan with hand-made Geiger counters (a hand-held device used to measure radiation), recording radiation levels. You read that last part correctly.
"We were getting frustrated with what was being reported in the media, what was being released by TEPCO, what was being released by the government," said Sean Bonner, co-founder of Safecast.org, which is currently partially self-funded, partially funded via a Kickstarter fundraiser.
"The information was just kind of unreliable, not updated frequently, no way to fact-check it... So, we just started thinking: What happens if we go get numbers ourselves? Like, is that an option?"
Out of thin air, a group of folks based in the US and Japan created a network that distributes Geiger counters to teams of people who record radiation levels in a consistent manner and upload it all to the Safecast site.
Mapped out with radiation readings gathered from other sources, Bonner said Safecast hopes to "paint a more reliable picture of what was going on".
Safecast currently has around 30 Geiger counters out in the field, they have ordered the parts to build another 300, and Bonner said their plan is to have 600 units collecting data within six months.
While he wishes for a shorter timeline, the fact is, Geiger counters are in demand at the moment.
"If we wanted to buy 600 right this minute, we couldn't do it."
Real and present danger
Perhaps the Safecast project might sound a little crazy and ill-advised (a ragtag group of techies zigzagging around the area around a nuclear disaster some have compared to Chernobyl). But the outcome is pretty empowering.
Bonner said that one of the members of HackerSpace, a collective involved with Safecast, has family just outside the initial evacuation zone in Fukushima Prefecture.
"They were told that the their area was safe, and so the guys from Tokyo HackerSpace took a Geiger counter and drove up there," said Bonner.
"And they're farmers, organic farmers, and they're in this area that they were told was okay, but the numbers were off the charts – they were high. And then 10 days later, that area was evacuated as well."
Watanabe, himself in the advertising business, also said that he appreciates the additional data for that very reason.
"The farmers are very worried about their crops – they want to sell produce and get the economy going, but currently, because there's no data or no system to check, they can't export their goods the way they used to."
Another highly vulnerable group are pregnant women, such as Rie Knowles, who lives in Tokyo. Told she should not drink tap water – at least for a time – and not much else, Knowles, who was in her 26th week of pregnancy when the earthquake hit, was left to seek information hither and thither.
"Most of the information I received was from TV and web discussion boards," said Knowles.
"There was also a lot of keitai (cellphone) e-mail from friends circulating rumours. We started to notice that there was bad information going around that way after about 2 days, but by then the TV information had improved."
But then, information reported was also confusing, and most people, including Knowles, who were not sure how worried they should be when they heard that radiation levels in a particular area was 10 times the normal levels.
The general sense people have is that "the information we are given is not the whole picture. Many times we see TEPCO say 'there is no evidence of X', only to find out later that it is because they have not done any checking for X," said Knowles.
In her 32nd week of pregnancy at the time of this interview, Knowles said she's checking Safecast for radiation readings allows her to "relax a little", although she's still avoiding vegetables and milk while sticking to bottled water, which remains in short supply.
The power of the crowd
While Safecast takes pains to make clear that it in no way is trying to undermine the efforts of the Japanese government in terms of trying to keep a handle on radiation levels, it's also quite clear that if all was well, their project would not be needed.
"The measurements that the government gives, we don't know what they measure or how it's measured, if you don't have that information, it's very difficult to put it into context," said Pieter Franken, the Japan representative for Safecast.
"We don't even know if they're measuring inside or outside the building."
Franken also points out that many of the experts offering analysis on the topic of radiation seem to give contradictory information.
"It's a highly politicised topic," said Franken.
Yet, people need to know if where they're living and what they're eating is safe. While Fukushima Prefecture is doing what it can – giving hourly updates for 35 different points of the prefecture, Franken points out that there are around 800 elementary schools in the prefecture.
"The idea is to use the power of the crowd to get lots of data points," said Franken.
"The quality will sort itself out, as we get a much bigger sample size."
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