• 05.10.12

Creating A Global Sensor Network To Keep Us Safe From Harm

Safecast was born after the Fukushima meltdown to crowdsource radiation measurements. But why stop at radiation? Now the organization aims to measure all the things in the air that might kill us.

After the tsunami drove ashore in Japan in March 2011, smashing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, there was almost no public information about radiation leaking from Japan’s damaged reactors. Officials were either in the dark, or holding back information from the public. Safecast was born a week later. The organization, led by a few resourceful citizens, decided to make their own radiation sensors and stream the data to the web.


Today, the Tokyo-based team of more than 100 volunteers is branching out. “We have quite a task ahead of us at the moment,” writes Sean Bonner, one of the co-founders of Safecast. “With radiation, we found something that we were shocked to find wasn’t already available for people, and felt that we could contribute something. I’d like to think that our next steps will be in a similar vein, focusing not on existing data but rather on creating useful data that doesn’t yet exist.”

Safecast is now looking at getting new sensors up and running for air pollution–particulate matter or other contaminants–in the next three months. It will be applying the same philosophy to other pollution that it applied to radiation: putting the collection and control of critical information into the hands of citizens.

The preferred method is hacking together new devices from cheap, effective components. “Some of our devices are literally a collection of raw parts that we wired together, but they are raw parts that anyone can buy,” says Bonner. For example, Safecast combined off-the-shelf commercial radiation monitors and custom devices to create its own network of radiation sensors. Data is comparable to that collected by nuclear scientists, says Safecast, as they use professional-grade sensors (the LND7317, or 2″ pancake) installed on cars (the “bGeigie”), buildings, and even smartphones (the “iGeigie”).

Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and grants, Safecast is now deploying more than 300 sensors across Japan and has collected more than 3 million data points. Its maps are beautiful, if disturbing, renderings of the fallout from Fukushima Daiichi, the stricken nuclear power plant, and its distribution across the country.

Eventually, we may see the same for global pollutants around the world.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.