This article appeared on Popular Mechanics on March 13, 2018.
"In the fallout of the Fukushima disaster, there was a global shortage of Geiger counters, devices used to measure radiation levels. Prices soared along with panic. “We didn’t know if we, our family, friends, neighbors or for that matter people throughout Japan were safe,"—so said Peiter Franken, a software engineer who was with his family in Tokyo as the tsunami hit, to Forbes in 2016. "It was a difficult situation and the lack of trustworthy data made everything worse.”
Franken began talking with activists Sean Bonner and Joi Ito over email, which quickly led to Skype group chats discussing the need for reliable Geiger counters. Looping in groups as varied as the Tokyo Hackerspace and web/mobile shops in Portland, the group quickly came to call itself Safecast. A Kickstarter campaign raised funds for the bGeigie, a Geiger counter entirely designed and built at Tokyo Hackerspace.
The group has expanded over the years and has earned the trust of many in Japan, like Seirinji Buddhist priest Sadamaru Okano: “The government didn’t tell us the truth, they didn’t tell us the true measures,” he tells AFP. Okano hangs a Safecast Geiger counter in his temple.
Safecast publishes its data online—you can see Seirinji data here—which Okano has used as a way to help assure worshipers that it is safe to return to the temple. “I told them: we are measuring the radiation on a daily basis … so if you access the [Safecast] website you can choose [whether you think] it’s safe or not.”
The group has expanded across the globe as crises call for them. In 2017 the group announced the Solarcast, a small device meant to measure air quality. Solarcast devices started appearing in infamously smog-filled Los Angeles that same year. When fires struck southern California, the Solarcast devices were able to detect where the air had gotten filled with soot.
With global environmental crises getting worse, the need for citizen-powered devices might be higher than ever. Having access to immediate, health-related data can give people the power to work together for each other's safety.
“The system to do that didn’t exist and the only way to solve that problem was to build it ourselves,” Franken tells the AFP now. “So that’s what we did.”"