In the first days of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in Japan last month, data on radiation levels in or near the facility were scarce. "At the very beginning, nobody knew how much radiation was being released by the place," says Washington Post science reporter Brian Vastag. The reason: Radiation detectors set up by the Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) near the plant had been wiped out by the same earthquake-tsunami disaster that cut power to the plant's cooling systems, and there was no fallback system.
Eventually, "TEPCO started just driving a car with a handheld detector" around the area, Vastag says, while roughly a week into the crisis, the Japanese government instructed the country's 47 prefectures to begin monitoring radiation levels.
Could average citizens equipped with mobile phones and geiger counters have stepped in where TEPCO fell down? Yes, say Marcelino Alvarez and David Ewald -- which is why they've started RDTN.org, an online platform for sharing and mapping real-time radiation data.
Alvarez, 31, and Ewald, 35, work for Uncorked Studios, a small Portland tech firm that creates "mobile and social-location based apps," says Alvarez, to promote "brand awareness" for commercial clients like Nike, Old Spice, and Entertainment Arts. Translation: Designing games or applications for mobile phones and tablets, sometimes capitalizing on the geo-tagging capabilities of sites like Facebook and Twitter in the process, to get consumers involved in advertising campaigns
The firms's expertise in combining social media, software design-and-build, and user participation turned out to be a good match for whipping up an online, crowdsourced system for monitoring radiation levels. On March 16, Alvarez says, "I sketched out the framework of a site that would plot out [radiation] data on a map, so people could see what's happening." The following day, he took it to Ewald and their co-workers, who liked the idea. On March 19, roughly 300 person-hours of work later, Uncorked launched RDTN.org.
The site currently incorporates radiation data from several official and unofficial sources, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; a volunteer crowdsourcing network in Russia; the enviro group Greenpeace; and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Individuals have begun to submit data as well. "We found there are quite a few credible people with feeds already," said Ewald. Once RDTN.org provided a relatively easy means to share information, "all of sudden feeds started emerging."
Perhaps most crucially, early on RDTN.org connected with Pachube (PATCH-bay), an existing open source network for sharing and mapping environmental data. "We have many hundreds of users in Japan who started using Pachube to publish and share data among themselves," Usman Haque, Pachube's CEO, told me. "One of the oldest feeds on Pachube is a geigier counter at the other end of the country" from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Pachube already has considerable credibility in the do-it-yourself and physical computing hacker scenes worldwide, so the connection helped propel RDTN.org's efforts. Alvarez and Ewald have become parts of a global tech scene they barely knew before. Recently, Ewald met with a Tokyo hacker collective to collaborate on devising small, relatively affordable geiger counters that can capitalize on the computing power of mobile phones (as well as the convenience of an already-built, well-maintained mobile telecommunications infrastructure) to collect and transmit data to RDTN.org. [Update, Apr. 25: Results so far include prototype "iGeigie" devices, combining iPhones with geiger counter components.]
Some obvious potential problems with citizen environmental monitoring involve issues scientists have long had systems for: ensuring that the data are accurate, as well as using the same units of measurement. "Radiation monitoring, it turns out, is kind of hard. The number coming out of the device doesn't mean much [if] there's no context around it," says information technologist Aaron Huertas. "Radiation is a whole bunch of isotopes that do different things." Huertas, a network engineer with experience in crisis and disaster response, has become one of RDTN.org's far-flung chain of unofficial advisors. He believes that while both human and technological solutions may emerge to iron out data quality issues, in the meantime "the wisdom of crowds" will help: As more people contribute data, extremes caused by bad readings or malfunctioning equipment (or maliciously intended misinformation) will become obvious, and be easily weeded out.
Haque agrees. "In a crowdsourced data set, you're looking for trends across geographical points, or trends in time," he says. "There is this potential for gaming the system, but so long as the crowd is big enough, the individual's attempt to game is lost in the noise."
When I talked with Vastag, we discussed how crowdsourced radiation data might be useful to reporters. If a crowdsource network had been in place before the government started its daily reporting, the readings might have given reporters some concrete information to work with in explaining the story, instead of going straight to worst-case, apocalype-is-nigh scenarios. Even now that the Japanese government is supplying radiation readings, it would be helpful to compare the crowdsource values to the official values, to hold the government accountable for keeping the public informed.
Alvarez and Ewald also want to hold the news media accountable. In the days immediately after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, they say they couldn't find good information on whether the radioactive emissions from Fukushima would travel across the Pacific to Portland, and what the risks might be if they did. Instead, say Ewald and Alvarez, the mainstream press got sidetracked into a relatively abstract debate about what the disaster meant for the use of nuclear power in the U.S. "My girlfriend is usually my sanity check, but she was starting to get worried as well, because no local media were reporting it," says Alvarez. "We were looking for concrete steps: 'If X happens, it has Y implications for West Coast.'"
Vague reassurances just made them worry more. "If there's any phrase that will make a sane person ask questions," Alvarez says, "it's 'you have nothing to worry about.'" Into that information void, their anxieties blossomed, and RDTN.org was born.
Images: Combinations of iPhone and geiger counter that may enable the average citizen to measure radiation levels in the environment, and share the information. Credit: Nokton/flickr, CC BY-SA
Note: Since this article was first published, RDTN.org has changed its name to Safecast.