Team Open

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Sean Bonner

When disaster struck in Japan, open data stepped in to help.

When an earthquake struck Japan in 2011, avoiding hazardous areas was critical. A month later, Sean Bonner and Joi Ito launched a project called Safecast to gather crowdsourced open sensor data, creating a system of up-to-date information on radiation zones in Japan. By applying the Creative Commons’ public domain declaration (CC0) to the data, they then ensured “Absolutely no hindrance to using the data.”

Safecast also created an open-source Geiger counter prototype, releasing full details of the software, hardware, and data collection to the public. By alleviating concerns about inaccurate or incomplete information, Safecast has grown in data contributors and users, all whom have free and unfettered access to 25 million (and growing!) data points through CC0.

In March of 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a series of destructive forces, crippling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and surrounding communities. Shortly after the resulting tsunami made landfall, radioactive water from the damaged facility began to leak, creating unsafe conditions for hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens.

With basic infrastructure and communications disabled, finding up-to-date and accurate information about the degree of destruction and most dangerous areas to avoid was nearly impossible. Within hours of the earthquake, however, a small group of technologists began working out a way to tackle the enormous challenge at hand through crowdsourced open sensors data from areas within range of the radiation leak. Being able to communicate vital information about the earthquake’s aftermath to people most affected by the disaster was paramount, and a free, simple legal tool from Creative Commons was an obvious part of making that happen.

“Within an hour, I was on the phone with Joi Ito (current Director of MIT Media Lab),” recalls Sean Bonner. One month later, Sean and Joi formed a group called Safecast, pulling together specialists in open technology and hardware to brainstorm solutions for an open system that would provide up to date information to people in and around the radiation zone. It would also need to collect crowd-sourced data collected by volunteers in the field, and make those data shareable without legal restrictions, to be freely reused by others. The world’s supply of Geiger counters was exhausted immediately post-tsunami, although the number available wouldn’t have been enough to effectively monitor the disaster in Fukushima if they had been available.

Upon forming Safecast, a handful of those who had been in communication following the tsunami met face-to-face in Tokyo and hacked together a prototype open-source Geiger counter called the bGeigie. Volunteers took to the streets on foot and in cars to take readings and share geographic, radiation level, and other useful data back up to the project. “We knew it was important to do things openly from the beginning,” shares Sean. As the teams began gathering data in the field, they learned more about the information that had been available to people in the region through government and local communications. Often inaccurate, incomplete, or very general about dangerous radiation in specific areas, locals had been turned off by what had been shared with them prior, and were not immediately sure of the motive and accuracy of Safecast data. The openness of the project ended up assuaging common fears, however, as anyone could view every line of code of the software, view full schematics of the hardware, and see how the data was centrally collected and distributed by Safecast.

“We wanted to create absolutely no hindrance to using the data,” Sean explains. The group released the open source software and hardware designs to their device, and chose to place all crowdsourced data in the public domain through use of the CC0 dedication. Not only was it now possible for anyone to construct their own bGeigie and contribute radiation readings, but anyone could also download and reuse the raw data without restrictions. “People could take the data and go play with it, riff on it, and skip the worrying process.” Since launching the project, Safecast has experienced growth in data contributors and users, which now have free and unfettered access to the more than 20 million data points related to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant failure. Sean expects that beyond expanded use of Safecast data, which can be combined with other open datasets to provide more context around dangerous conditions in Japan, the project’s completely open architecture might serve as a model for other disaster-related projects that want to use openness as a starting point. “Being open, a much more interesting conversation happened.” That was a conversation enabled by open.

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Creative Commons License

Sean Bonner (Team Open) was written by Billy Meinke for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The illustration of Sean Bonner was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.