Pure Genius

Q&A: Sean Bonner, co-founder of Safecast, on crowdsourcing science

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Built in one week, the organization Safecast pioneered a new kind of citizen science.

This is the second installment in a two-part interview with Sean Bonner.

Most of us trust that scientists are out there monitoring our environments and making sure everything is A-OK, checking whether the ground we’re standing on is perfect for planting hydrangeas, or fatally poisoning our bodies; whether the air we breathe is rejuvenating us, or leading us to the cancer ward.

When the 2011 Japan earthquake hit, it soon became clear that not enough people -- or organizations -- were. Contaminated areas of radiation were scattered across Japan, entirely undetectable without expensive devices called Geiger counters.

Enter Safecast, a mostly volunteer-run non-profit co-founded by Sean Bonner, the internet entrepreneur. Initially, the goal was to map radiation levels in Japan as precisely as possible. The group has already succeeded and far surpassed that goal.

Safecast offers a way to crowdsource granular environmental data. It designed and built a Geiger counter affordable enough for the average citizen, and all of the information is gathered and published free of charge. "Our goal is not to sell hardware. Our goal is not to sell maps. Our goal is to create data," says Bonner.

I sat down with Bonner to talk citizen science and the future of Safecast. Check out Part One of our interview, in which Bonner, now an icon of Internet subculture, sheds light on his public rejection of Facebook.

You co-founded Safecast a week after the 2011 Japan earthquake. Most people don’t launch organizations that fast. How does the marriage of DIY philosophy and technology work toward a democratization of science?

With Safecast we didn’t ask permission for anything. We realized there was a problem and we took steps to solve it. We didn’t see if what we were doing was legal. We didn’t see if we could get political support. We didn’t wait for permits. We didn’t rely on anybody else. I think that is a huge DIY influence.

Safecast is now working across continents. Where is the organization at now?

Our concern with lack of information in Japan made us aware of a lack of information elsewhere. So we’ve taken the Safecast platform and expanded it out to create a global data set of radiation levels.

Prior to March 11th, 2011, if you wanted to find radiation levels, it would be like a weather report averaging your entire state. It wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect, but it wouldn’t tell you whether you needed a raincoat or not.

The data that we started publishing was much more granular. We were producing specific readings at specific addresses. In the past, only rough averages were available. With the kind of information we produce, we’ll have very specific geolocated environmental data sets to compare to in the future.

We’ve now moved into air quality. The platform was designed for radiation, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be used that way. Air-quality readings suffer from a lot of the same issues as radiation. They are vague. If I look in the paper and it says, “Today is a good day,” but what does that mean? What am I actually breathing?

We’ve just published our seven millionth radiation data point. We have the vast majority of Japan mapped, huge swaths of the United States mapped, and giant chunks around Europe mapped. We’ve done all of this with our own volunteer team.

This month, we’re releasing two devices that will help other people contribute to the data set as well. This Geiger counter that we drive around and attach to cars and collect data with hasn’t been available to people up until now. With the public release of two of these devices, I think the question of radiation data is going to skyrocket, which I’m very excited about.

So where do you envision the organization in five years?

Air quality was the low-hanging fruit to some extent. We didn’t have to redesign everything from scratch. We could use a lot of what we built for radiation and apply that to air quality. But I think there are a lot of things we could look at that would require going back to ground zero and building from there.

Seismic data, soil contamination, water, food –- these are all things that we just trust somebody else is paying attention to. But we don’t actually know if someone else is paying attention, or how. If there is an independent platform paying attention, it will be very useful.

If you’re talking five years out, I think there’s an endless number of things that we could move into monitoring –- or, more so, helping people monitor.

We’ve been really agile with what we’ve done in that we haven’t put out a long-term goal. Because it is a volunteer-driven group, we try to focus on what the next two or three steps are. It is so open in every way.

Our goal is not to sell hardware. Our goal is not to sell maps. Our goal is to create data. But we build hardware to help people collect data. We build maps to put a face on the data. The main goal is getting this data available.

If Safecast disappeared today, a lot of what we’re doing would continue on without us. And we’ve tried to create the organization in such a way that we’re the least important piece of it.

Photo illustration based on the original by Joi Ito/Flickr.

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure