Sean Bonner: The Seismic Necessity of Safecast

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 26 December 2018

Sean Bonner started his Shuttleworth Fellowship in September 2012 to work on Safecast, an open, volunteer-centered environmental data initiative.

Born 18 months earlier as a reaction to the multiple meltdowns of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Safecast has made significant progress in enabling people to gather and view reliable, verified environmental information on a highly localised level.

Over the last few years, Safecast has collected the largest ever dataset of background radiation measurements, changed thinking in the field, and empowered communities to better understand the environments they live in.

Sean’s story is an impressive example of the power and potential of working openly and the speed at which you can mobilise and encourage people - even across continents - to participate in critical citizen science projects.

Sean Bonner: A Brief History

Sean’s background is best described as ‘engaged.’ He’s put out punk rock records, set up a global blogging network and started one of the first hacker spaces in the US. He’s been a startup mentor, conference organiser, art gallery cofounder, journalist and community manager. And he’s an entrepreneur, street photographer, artist, designer, speaker and activist, as well as finding spare time to practice Bujinkan and Japanese - and start a PhD.

In short, he likes to get things done. And at the heart of many of his achievements lies three distinct cornerstones: the DIY ethic, sharing knowledge and community building.

“All these approaches are ingrained in me, going all the way back to high school,” says Sean. “The hackerspaces, community management and conference organising all come from that. And I was deeply involved with using the Internet and helping people do things locally.”

In the years leading up to the birth of Safecast, Sean ran a blog network and worked on an investment fund with Joi Ito in Singapore, and collaborated with him on some events in Japan.

“I was spending a lot more time with Joi,” recalls Sean. “He was funding a couple of startups which I helped to mentor and troubleshoot. And then…this earthquake happens.”

The Problem

As news of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami filtered through, followed by the terrifying revelation it had taken out a nuclear power plant, most people around the world sat and watched in horror and helplessness. But not everyone froze.

“Joi was still living in Japan, but was in the US at the time - I was in LA,” remembers Sean. “We immediately got talking on email to find out what was going on. You had these three separate disasters overlapping and the problems were spiralling.

“We spoke to people in Japan - Joi connected us with his friend Pieter Franken, who had been living there for 35 years.” he continues. “We were told no one could get any information about this meltdown or the radiation levels. As a group of ‘Internet people,’ we knew the data had to be some place, so we decided to go find it.

“We started looking and very quickly became shocked and appalled there was no data; no one universal place for tracking of this kind of stuff at all. It was unbelievable.’

Changing tact, the growing group shifted their thinking towards getting Geiger counters out to people, only to discover the world supply of these devices had sold out in 24 hours. There was barely a market - even one of the biggest suppliers of commercial units had a business model based around selling five to ten a month. They were now getting orders of 4-5,000 a day.

Mobilising a Global Community

Sean and Joi had another problem to consider. They had a conference organised in Tokyo, scheduled a month later, and a lot of the invitees had begun to ask difficult, but understandable, questions about safety.

“We didn’t know what to tell them,” explains Sean. “We were still trying to figure it out. Would cancelling the event send out the wrong message? Or should we continue and possibly put people at risk? People were looking to us for leadership and we had to decide what to do within the confusion of a fast-evolving and unfamiliar chain of events.

“Eventually, we made the decision to change the theme of the conference and focus on Fukushima. It gave everyone we invited a possible out, and allowed us to bring the experts and people we were talking to on email, in chat rooms and in our networks that could help.”

Over the next month, the online collaborators put together patchy data maps of radiation, collected and translated academic research, and started building sensor devices in a Tokyo hackerspace. On April 15th, a large group of community members arrived at the Tokyo conference. They sat down in a room, dumped their backpacks on the floor and came up with a few ideas.

A Discovery

At this stage, Sean and the group had managed to unearth a few Geiger counters and came up with an idea to strap them to cars and take sensor readings on the move - a novel approach to a practice usually performed from a static position.

“Almost a year later we found a paper from 1940,” says Sean. “It was about military jeeps collecting map data in a similar way. It helped us validate our work, as others had considered the same solution.

“We rigged it up pretty much overnight,” he continues. “We used a laptop, a Geiger counter and GPS, duct taped the counter to a car window, and took pictures from an iPhone every few minutes.

“It was an absolute nightmare to process. So the next step was to automate it and start driving around with them right away. ”

What happened next was revelatory. Straight away, the team saw their readings fluctuate on a highly localised level, giving richer, more accurate data than the vague averages of large areas presented in the official figures.

“We found where there was fallout there was also significant variance between one street to the next,” explains Sean. “The government were giving average figures, and essentially, they were moving people out of the wrong areas.”

It wasn’t long before the Japanese government announced they were changing the evacuation zones.

“We didn’t get confirmation from someone in office,” smiles Sean. “But given the timing of events, it seems likely we made a difference.”

Introducing: Safecast

With a tool able to measure accurate readings and a data set they could stand behind, Sean, Joi and Pieter saw a possible future for the project

“We wanted to make sure that the data we published was open, in the public domain and there were no restrictions on people using it,” says Sean. “And we decided on a name - Safecast - that had nothing to do with radiation or Japan, and wasn’t locked into this traumatic event.”

It wasn’t long before Safecast began to roll out its first devices, enabled by some early funding sources. Within a year, Sean and the team were able to outsource some mapping and visualization work they were doing to MIT, thanks in part to Joi Ito’s new role at the Media Lab. And all the while they were building a growing community who were collecting accurate, viable data that attracted the attention of people as high profile as the United Nations.

However, the Fukushima event was long out of the headline news by this stage. Donations started to dry up and money was running out.

“We couldn’t pay for anything,” Sean recalls. “We didn’t want to turn this into a startup, because then we would lose the community. But at the same time, there wasn’t a nonprofit structure for what we were doing.”

Getting With the Programme

Sean was encouraged to apply to the Shuttleworth Fellowship by friend and then-Fellow Jesse von Doom. He was awarded a place on the Foundation programme in September 2012.

From the Foundation’s perspective, the opportunities Safecast could create were exciting, specifically around the design of open sensors to enable individuals to measure different environmental factors.

But also, given our previous experiments in open hardware often raised more questions than they answered, Sean’s approach showed a clear awareness of the need to prove quality, reliability and value - financially, as well as socially.

For Sean, the Fellowship award had a near instant impact.

“When the Foundation money came in all of a sudden we could deploy a hundred sensors, and build and release these new things,” says Sean. “Interest had been waning, but it just flew through the roof again. Our data points started growing and more people came out of the woodwork to help.

“The Foundation was instrumental in so many different ways. You think money’s going to pay for this thing, money paid for stuff but it also encouraged a lot of good will in our community that enabled us to bring in even more good will.

“We weren’t just surviving, but growing and taking chances that we wouldn’t have been able to under other circumstances. It’s hard for me to look back and see where we would be without that backing.”

Over the next three years, Sean steered the Safecast project towards some impressive achievements, some of which have been game changing.

The Safecast data set became recognised as the most comprehensive in the field and is now a primary source of background radiation data for several governments. It also made a fundamental change to how many agencies approach environmental monitoring.

“We went into this taking a contrary position,” says Sean. “There was never a radiation monitoring project that wasn’t firmly aligned with pro- or anti-nuclear prior to us. There was no data set without several pieces hidden for IP purposes or national secrecy.

“Everything was tied to people with fifteen different doctorates and it was a heavily academic field. Then there’s us - hackers and volunteers jumping in and turning the entire model upside down.”

However, as we look back on Sean’s Fellowship, one of the most important breakthroughs has been the enablement of citizens to make better decisions about their own safety; not just in Japan but worldwide.

As more people in the Fukushima region started using Safecast-designed devices, they could move in - or out - in the firm knowledge it was the right thing to do. And in other parts of the world where high radiation levels are an ongoing concern, the impartial, unbiased data collected and mapped by Safecast and its many volunteers is critical to empower and educate citizens.

At a time when distrust in governments is increasing in many areas of the world, openly available and transparent data offers a reassuring truth.

Personal Reflections

“My Fellowship was fantastic,” says Sean. “A lot of it seemed crazy and there were some super huge headaches, but it turned but to be fantastic in every possible way.

“I felt like I personally changed in so many ways through that time and having access to that kind of support. It’s one thing to believe in what you are doing and think it’s worth doing. It’s another thing entirely to have a group like the Fellowship and the extended community on board as well.

“Some people would say I was already confident, but I second guess everything far more than is healthy. The Foundation experience was reassuring to help me become more confident about the project…and the method, because that’s another big piece of it.

“And the sharing with others aspect - it made me feel I had as much to contribute as I got out of it and that we were growing together, all on this path. It never felt like a handout, or never felt it was the smart people helping out the rest. It did wonders for me.

“The Foundation feels much more like a family than could ever be expressed. I really feel that way about it - and I hope it feels that way about me.”

The Road Ahead

Post-Fellowship, the Safecast project has continued to achieve success. There is significant institutional support and Sean and the team have been deploying better solar and cellular powered devices to volunteers around the world, while also pushing out academic papers on their work.

“Our data set is growing between two or three million data points a month,”says Sean. “We just broke the 110 million mark which is incredibly significant in a number of ways. There has never been a data set that big. To give that context, some official data sets is only 30,000 points.

“Every other data set combined is smaller than the Safecast data set. It’s really a massive win for open.”

Sean has taken his commitment to Safecast to the next level, too. In 2017 he moved his family from the States to start a new life in Tokyo, and he and the team are in the process of widening their scope. Having first deployed a set of sensor devices measuring air particulate in 2016, there are plans to roll out more in the next year. However, the situation has not been completely without problems.

“We all made several changes to our lives to allow more time spent on Safecast. But we had funding plans that didn’t come through, so things are tricky right now - it‘s very small steps.

“We’ve been picking up bits of funding here and there, but it’s been difficult because on a structural, organisational and practical level, we’re not a startup or a traditional nonprofit.

“Now we’re juggling our time half-mission and half-fundraising. We don’t want to be a fundraising group, it’s just not our thing. So, we made our first director level hire and are all focussing our efforts to help take the next large steps.”

Given Sean’s tenacious ability to get to the root of problems and solve them, the Foundation is confident the future for Safecast and its network of volunteers is bright. He has helped open up a field traditionally clouded by academic jargon, government and corporate secrecy, and extreme political viewpoints. And he has had a tremendous impact in shifting thinking and delivering real world, socially beneficial results.

Sean Bonner remains an integral part of the Shuttleworth community, and heads the Safecast network as Global Director. He is also Associate Professor at Keio University and a researcher at MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media.

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