Citizen science, civic media and radiation data hint at what's to come

The evolution of Safecast is a glimpse into networked accountability.

SafecastNatural disasters and wars bring people together in unanticipated ways, as they use the tools and technologies easily at hand to help. From crisis response to situational awareness, free or low cost online tools are empowering citizens to do more than donate money or blood: now they can donate, time, expertise or, increasingly, act as sensors. In the United States, we saw a leading edge of this phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico, where open source oil spill reporting provided a prototype for data collection via smartphone. In Japan, an analogous effort has grown and matured in the wake of the nuclear disaster that resulted from a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami this spring.

The story of the RDTN project, which has grown into Safecast, a crowdsourced radiation detection network, isn’t new, exactly, but it’s important.

Radiation monitoring and grassroots mapping in Japan has been going on since April, as Emily Gertz reported at I recently heard more about the Safecast project from Joi Ito at this year’s Civic Media conference at the MIT Media Lab, where Ito described his involvement. Ethan Zuckerman blogged Ito’s presentation, capturing his thoughts on how the Internet helped cover the Japanese earthquake (Twitter “beat the pants” off the mainstream media on the first day) and the Safecast project’s evolution from a Skype chat.

According to Gertz’ reporting, Safecast now includes data from a variety of sources, including feeds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Greenpeace, a volunteer crowdsourcing network in Russia, and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Radiation data that’s put into Safecast is made available for others to use via Pachube, an open-source platform for monitoring sensor data.

Ito said that a lot of radiation data that the Japanese government had indicated would be opened up has not been released, prompting the insight that crises, natural or otherwise, are an excellent opportunity to examine how effective an open government data implementation has been. Initially, the RDTN project entered an environment where there was nearly no radiation data available to the public.

“They were releasing data, it was just not very specific,” said Sean Bonner, via Skype Interview. Bonner has served as the communications lead for Safecast since the project began. The Japanese government “would release data for some areas and not for others — or rather they didn’t have it,” he said. “I don’t think they had data they weren’t releasing. Our point is that the sensors to detect the data were not in place at all. So we decided to help with that.”

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A KickStarter campaign in April raised nearly $37,000 to purchase Geiger counters to gather radiation data. Normally, that might be sufficient to obtain dozens of devices, given costs that range from $100 to nearly $1,000 for a professional-grade unit. The challenge is that if Geiger counters weren’t easy to get before the Japanese nuclear meltdown, they became nearly impossible to obtain afterwards.

The Safecast project has also hacked together iGeigie, an iPhone-connected Geiger counter that can detect beta and gamma radiation. “The iGeigie is just a concept product, it’s not a focus or a main solution,” cautioned Bonner. “So a lot of what we’ve been doing it trying to help cover more ground with single sensors.”

Even if they were in broader circulation, Geiger counters are unlikely to detect radiation in food or water. That’s where open source hardware and hackerspaces become more relevant, specifically the Arduino boards that Radar and Make readers know well.

“We have Arduinos in the static devices that we are building and connecting to the web,” said Bonner. “We’re putting those around and they report data back to us.” In other words, the Internet of Things is growing.

The sensors Safecast is deploying will capture alpha, beta and gamma radiation. “It’s very important to track all three,” said Bonner. “The very sensitive devices we are using are commercially produced. [They are] Inspector Alerts, made by International Medcom. Those use the industry standard 2-inch pancake sensor, which we are using in our other devices as well. We are using the same sensors everywhere. “

Citizen science and open data

Open source software and citizens acting as sensors have steadily been integrated into journalism over the past few years, most dramatically in the videos and pictures uploaded after the 2009 Iran election and during this year’s Arab Spring. Citizen science looks like the new frontier. “I think the real value of citizen media will be collecting data,” said Rich Jones, founder of OpenWatch, a counter-surveillance project that aims to “police the police.” Apps like Open Watch can make “analyzing data a revolutionary act,” said Justin Jacoby Smith. The development of Oil Reporter, grassroots mapping, Safecast, social networks, powerful connected smartphones and massive online processing power have put us into new territory. In the context of environmental or man-made disasters, collecting or sharing data can also be a civic act.

Crowdsourcing radiation data on Japan does raise legitimate questions about data quality and reporting, as Safecast’s own project leads acknowledge.

“We make it very clear on the site that yes, there could most definitely be inaccuracies in crowd-sourced data,” Safecast’s Marcelino Alvarez told Public Radio International. “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.”

The thinking here is that while some data may be inaccurate or some sensors misconfigured, over time the aggregate will skew toward accuracy. “More data is always better than less data,” said Bonner. “Data from several sources is more reliable than from one source, by default. Without commenting on the reliability of any specific source, all the other sources help improve the overall data. Open data helps with that.”

Safecast is combining open data collected by citizen science with academic, NGO and open government data, where available, and then making it widely available. It’s similar to other projects, where public data and experimental data are percolating.

Citizen science can create information orders of magnitude better than Google Maps, said Brian Boyer, news application developer at the Chicago Tribune, referencing the grassroots mapping work of Jeffrey Warren and others. “It’s also fun,” Boyer said. “You can get lots of people involved who wouldn’t otherwise be involved doing a mapping project.”

As news of these experiments spreads, the code and policies used to build them will also move with them. The spread of open source software is now being accompanied by open source hardware and maker culture. That will likely have unexpected effects.

When you can’t meet demand for a device like a Geiger counter, people will start building their own, said Ito at the MIT Civic Media conference. He’s seeing open hardware design spread globally. While there’s an embargo on the export of many technologies, “we argue — and win — that open source software is free speech,” said Ito. “Open source hardware is the same.” If open source software now plays a fundamental role in new media, as evidenced by the 2011 winners of the Knight News Challenge, open source hardware may be supporting democracy in journalism too, says Ito.

Given Ito’s success in anticipating (and funding) other technological changes, that’s one prediction to watch.


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