Safecast to offer public updates ranging from radiation to smog

Safecast’s new effort to share air-quality and other data had its origins in a network it created to monitor radiation after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster last year in Japan.

The small nonprofit Safecast is applying lessons learned from measuring radiation post-Fukushima to the pervasive and growing problem of urban air quality. Buoyed by a $400,000 prize from the Knight Foundation, the group is designing low-cost environmental sensors that measure air quality every minute and post the data publicly. The sensor system, which uses off-the-shelf components, will make its debut in Los Angeles.

“I have a lot of friends in Japan,” said Sean Bonner, a Safecast co-founder. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, he said, “they couldn’t get any information, cell networks were down, people just didn’t know what was going on.”

Working with a constellation of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and hackers around the world, Mr. Bonner set out to collect the data sought by his friends and make it easily accessible, but the team quickly hit a wall: the data they wanted did not exist. “Before we realized it, we were building Geiger counters, figuring out how to take lots of measurements and make the devices mobile,” Mr. Bonner said.

So Safecast was born. Beyond Geiger counters, the group considered other opportunities for environmental monitoring and recognized that air quality reporting “suffered from a lot of the same problems as radiation,” Mr. Bonner said. The data is often licensed and unavailable for public distribution, and where it does exist, numbers tend to be imprecise spatial and temporal averages…

John Bracken, director of journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation, said that Safecast’s work was part of a growing embrace of mobile monitoring devices spun out of hacker and D.I.Y. culture. “A lot of groups are taking lessons from the software community and applying them to hardware,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time…”

In Japan, he noted, the participatory and transparent process through which volunteers used Geiger counters to take measurements – now exceeding four million data points – generated public trust in the data at a time when people were skeptical of official pronouncements…

Eventually, Mr. Bonner and his team hope the pilot project will help underpin an international and citizen-run network of air quality monitors.

Admirable. Not only the goals set by Safecast; but, the $400K gift from the Knight Foundation to seed the start-up process.

Radiation isn’t a pervasive danger in every land on this Earth; but, pollution is a generalized danger to life and prosperity everywhere. Equipping ordinary civilians to measure pollution, confront polluters – and governments – is a do-it-yourself political dream come true.

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