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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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Niche market: Sean Bonner, one of the Safecast group's founders, displays in Tokyo on July 4 a Geiger counter that he created. AP

U.S. group supplying radiation data


People seeking information on radiation levels from the Fukushima crisis are turning to a volunteer group founded in the U.S. that has created a detailed and constantly updated visual database online.

Los Angeles resident Sean Bonner, a computer expert and one of the founders of the Safecast group, said nothing could have been more natural than to jump in and fill the need for information after the March 2011 disasters caused the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

Many Japanese were terrified about the health effects of radiation, especially on children, and worried whether their homes, schools and offices were safe.

They were also frustrated by the lack of government or any other official data on the implications of radiation exposure. Geiger counters, meanwhile, were selling out.

Within weeks, Bonner and his team created a handmade Geiger counter connected with a GPS feature called "bGeigie," a reference to traditional "bento" boxed lunches. The device is attached to cars and takes a reading every five seconds, storing massive amounts of data in the process. At present, there are 30 to 35 such mobile devices traversing Japan and 320 fixed devices.

Safecast made both the technology and the data open, sharing the design and findings, and has now collected more than 3 million measurements across Japan. Other volunteers have used the data to develop online maps.

"There was no data that was available anywhere, and we were rather surprised," Bonner said during a trip to Japan last week to meet with volunteers. "We realized that we could help."

Safecast says it is currently focused on Japan but would like to provide data on a global level.

Over the last year and a half, Safecast, billed as "a global sensor network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments," has expanded considerably.

It also has won grant funding, including from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and has collected donations and works with Japanese universities.

Local governments in Fukushima are linking up with Safecast to get additional readings, for example in schools, and are sharing data with residents. More volunteers are joining, including Europeans and Japanese as well as other nationalities.

The latest prototype, as small and sleek as a cellphone, is on its way to becoming a commercial product from International Medcom, a major U.S. Geiger counter maker, later this year.

Although the government and some scientists had radiation data, they were not as quick as Bonner to go to the Japanese public. In one case, the government withheld radiation projection data that had accurately shown radiation wafting northwest from the Fukushima No. 1 plant far outside the 20-km no-go zone.

That kind of secrecy resulted in people suffering unnecessary exposure, including some who evacuated right into the path of radiation spewed by the power station.

The ensuing mistrust in the government and officials prone to flip-flopping on their remarks helped to boost Safecast's popularity.

Toshikatsu Watanabe, head of a marketing company in Fukushima, is grateful to the group.

"When you don't know, you become afraid," said Watanabe, who has measured not only his home and office but schools and other places in his neighborhood.

"I can only do what I can, and we don't know for sure if the radiation is going to have a bad effect or what," he said. "The people of Fukushima are trying to cope, day by day, but it's a long road ahead."

Besides the regular Geiger counter, Safecast uses relatively simple technology. Yet it filled a critical need in disaster-hit Japan, and it did so simply by quick thinking and quick action, bringing people from various countries together.

Safecast is careful not to take sides on whether Japan should stick with nuclear power or abandon it, to preserve its reputation for objective data unclouded by suspicions they may be manipulated to back one side or the other.

Sometimes people who were getting ready to evacuate found they had been unnecessarily alarmed after examining Safecast data and decided to stay put.

Bonner said that with the data, people can make more informed decisions.

"Everything is radioactive all the time, but nobody was paying any attention to it," he said, referring to the low natural background levels of radiation present everywhere. "Most of us have no point of reference for what radiation is."

For further details about the group, visit Safecast at blog.safecast.org.

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