Since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, people in Japan have been keeping up on the radiation levels in their area. And, like people all over the world, they look for information on the Internet. Surprisingly, one of the most interesting new websites aggregating and creating Japanese radiation data is coming from a small advertising studio in Portland, OR.
If you were to picture the sort of person who might take the lead in gathering radiation data from the Fukushima nuclear accident, Marcelino Alvarez probably wouldn’t come to mind.
“My background is actually not in physics or nuclear physics or science or radiation data, it’s actually in advertising,” Alvarez said. “So building websites, and doing product development.”
But Alvarez is also a news junkie. During the early days of the Fukushima crisis, he was watching the news nonstop. And he was surprised, in this post-Chernobyl age that even the experts were fumbling around to find up to date information.
“So I said, there’s got to be a better way,” Alvarez said. “And I drew a really crude sketch and I sent it to our creative director, and I said, what do you think about this? What if we made a site that just invited people to contribute their own data? And so we designed it, and two days after that basically launched the first version of the site.”
That website became what’s now called Safecast. The home page has a constantly-updating map of Japan, with little pins charting the latest radiation data. Safecast aggregates data from official public sources, but also lets volunteers upload their own Geiger counter readings.
Alvarez drew on his background in web design and location-based mobile apps to pull it together. He’s also working with scientists in America and Japan, along with programmers from Tokyo’s hacker community.
“So it’s a mix, and we hope that that mix will help create a more accurate picture of what’s actually going on,” Alvarez said.
And many people in Japan are hungry for that picture, given the frustrations with official government data. Pieter Franken is a Dutch Internet researcher at Tokyo’s Keio University, who’s been working with Safecast’s Japanese team.
“What we have been seeing is that information that has been given has either been given too late, weeks after the measurements were done, or may not have been done in a consistent manner,” Franken said.
Safecast’s instant uploads mean that their data is always timely. And they’ve also established standards for consistency for the data their volunteers gather. For instance, fallout settles on the ground, so a reading from a roof can be different from a reading at ground level. Franken says knowing this is especially important when you’re trying to determine a possible risk to children.
“Kids love to touch soil, small babies stick it in their mouth and stuff like that,” Franken said. “So when we’re measuring, it makes sense to measure at height of one meter, actually a little bit lower than that, to understand what a child is exposed to in daily in life.”
But even if you establish standards, relying on citizen-scientist volunteers means there are always questions about the data.
Safecast’s Marcelino Alvarez is frank about the potential problems.
“And so we make it very clear on the site that yes, there could most definitely be inaccuracies in crowd-sourced data. And yes, there could be contamination of a particular Geiger counter so the readings could be off,” Alvarez said. “But our hope is that with more centers and more data being reported that those points that are outliers can be eliminated, and that trends can be discerned from the data.”
Scientists in the US also see value in this open-source model. Stephen Frantz runs the small research reactor at Portland’s Reed College.
“If we get enough databases, enough information, we might see trends that nobody had ever measured. And we say oh, look at that, the radiation levels here are doing this,” Frantz said.
Frantz also said that having so much data in such a user-friendly format can serve another purpose: helping people understand that not all radiation is due to accidents and other human causes, that background radiation is a part of normal life.
“We live in a sea of radiation, we’ve evolved in it, and since we can’t sense it with our five senses, we didn’t even know about it ’til 100 years ago, but we’ve been living in it all of time,” Frantz said.
But of course accidents and other unusual events do happen. And the situation at Fukushima is still potentially volatile. That’s why Safecast is continuing to adjust their website in response to suggestions from citizens and scientists. And they just completed a fundraising campaign to send 600 Geiger counters to volunteers in Japan.
And Marcelino Alvarez hopes that the Safecast model can grow, eventually creating a resource for collecting all different kinds of environmental data.
“While radiation is the immediate crisis that spawned this idea, these devices could do a lot more than radiation. So whether it be pollen count or seismic activity or pollution or radiation, we could create a network of connected devices that could keep people informed.”
Alvarez plans to finally travel to Japan and meet up with his online colleagues there in July.