News / USA

Oregon Advertising Studio Tracks Fukushima Radiation

Establishes website which collects information from multiple sources

Safecast contributor Pieter Franken takes a mobile probe radiation measurement in Japan.
Safecast contributor Pieter Franken takes a mobile probe radiation measurement in Japan.

Multimedia

Audio
Deena Prichep

If you were to picture the sort of person who might take the lead in gathering radiation data from the Fukushima nuclear accident, Marcelino Alvarez probably wouldn’t come to mind.

“My background is actually not in physics or nuclear physics or science or radiation data," he says. "It’s actually in advertising, so, building websites and doing product development.”

But Alvarez also follows what’s happening in the world. During the early days of the Fukushima crisis, he watched the news coverage nonstop. And he was surprised that even the experts were having a hard time finding accurate up-to-date information.

“So I said, 'There’s got to be a better way.'  And I drew a really crude sketch and I sent it to our creative director, and I said, 'What do you think about this? What if we made a site that just invited people to contribute their own data?' And so we designed it and, two days after that, basically launched the first version of the site.”

That website became what’s now called Safecast. The home page has a constantly-updating map of Japan with little pins charting the latest radiation data. Safecast aggregates data from official public sources and allows volunteers to upload their own Geiger counter readings.

Safecast co-founder and software lead Marcelino Alvarez
Safecast co-founder and software lead Marcelino Alvarez

Alvarez drew on his background in web design and location-based mobile apps to pull it together. He’s also working with scientists in the United States and Japan as well as individual programmers in Tokyo.

“So we’ve got official Japanese ministry data. We have volunteers in Japan data. We have Greenpeace and other organizations that are driving around creating data," says Alvarez. "So it’s a mix, and we hope that mix will help create a more accurate picture of what’s actually going on.”

Many people in Japan are hungry for that picture, given what Pieter Franken says are the frustrations with official government data. The Dutch Internet researcher at Tokyo’s Keio University is a member of Safecast’s Japanese team.

“What we have been seeing is that information that has been given has either been given too late, weeks after the measurements were done," says  Franken, "or may not have been done in a consistent manner.”

Safecast’s instant uploads mean its data is always timely. It’s also established standards for consistency for its volunteers. For instance, they’re asked to note where they took their measurements. Since fallout settles on the ground, a reading from a roof can be different from a reading at ground level.

Franken says knowing this is especially important when you’re trying to determine a possible risk to children.

“Kids love to touch soil, play with it, small babies stick it in their mouth and stuff like that. So when we’re measuring, it makes sense to measure at a height of one meter, actually a little bit lower than that, to understand what a child is exposed to in daily life.”

But even with established standards, relying on citizen-scientists means there are always questions about accuracy.

“So we make it very clear on the site that yes, there could most definitely be inaccuracies in crowd-sourced data," says Alvarez. "And yes, there could be contamination of a particular Geiger counter so the readings could be off. 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 that’s being reported.”

American scientist Stephen Frantz, of Reed College in Portland, sees value in this open-source model.

“If we get enough databases, enough information, we might see trends that nobody had ever measured." he says. "And we say, ‘Oh, look at that, the radiation levels here are doing this.’”

Frantz also says having so much data in a user-friendly format can serve another purpose: help people understand that not all radiation is due to leaks from nuclear power plants, that background radiation is a natural part of life.

“We live in a sea of radiation," says Frantz. "We’ve evolved in it and, since we can’t sense it with our five senses, we didn’t even know about it until 100 years ago. But we’ve been living in it all of time.”

The situation at the Fukushima reactor site remains volatile. That’s why Alvarez continually adjusts the website in response to suggestions from citizens and scientists. Safecast recently completed a fundraising campaign to send 600 Geiger counters to volunteers in Japan.

Alvarez hopes the non-profit Safecast model can grow, eventually creating a resource for collecting and sharing all kinds of environmental data, from pollen counts and seismic activity to pollution levels.

You May Like

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More