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Hacker-designed radiation sensors assist Japanese recovery

Apr 26, 20115 mins
Data and Information SecurityHacking

With all the problems Japan is facing, the geeks of Tokyo Hackerspace are finding no shortage of work. Tokyo Hackerspace, and other hackerspaces like it, are places where hackers and tech enthusiasts can get together and fiddle with hardware.

With all the problems Japan is facing, the geeks of Tokyo Hackerspace are finding no shortage of work. Tokyo Hackerspace, and other hackerspaces like it, are places where hackers and tech enthusiasts can get together and fiddle with hardware.

After last month’s earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese group decided to use its expertise to help with relief efforts.The group currently has ten different relief projects going on, including, according to one member, “running an evacuee shelter in Kamogawa, providing hygiene packs for people at shelters, building out solar lanterns for areas that still have no power, [and] getting solar phone chargers out to the disaster region.”

Perhaps the most notable of these efforts, however, is a distributed network of radiation monitors around the Fukushima nuclear plant, which failed shortly after the disaster. These homemade monitors help to keep people apprised of the levels of radiation from the damaged plant. Once the project got going, Tokyo Hackerspace worked to expand the sensor network with Safecast (formerly RDTN) and Geiger Maps JP, two sites that aggregate and visualize radiation data.

The Need for Information

It’s easy to imagine that people in Japan have access to far more information about radiation in Fukushima than we do, but that isn’t the case. Many of the people who need it the most know far less.

“The idea basically came from feeling helpless,” says Akiba, a hacker with Tokyo Hackerspace who helped spearhead the project.

Akiba, whose given name is Chris, takes his hacker name from his wife’s surname and the slang for Tokyo’s tech-happy Akihabara district. Although Akiba, who lives in Tokyo, was relatively unharmed by the quake itself, he started to see a bit of a panic in the city after the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant began. “Unfortunately, there was not much news on what the safety implications were at the time, and many people got paranoid. That’s when you started seeing people flee Tokyo.”

The project began as a way to collect and distribute more-recent radiation information than the government was releasing, in an effort to keep Tokyo residents calm. On March 13, just a day after the explosions at Fukushima, Tokyo Hackerspace was working on getting its own radiation data. The government took almost a week to begin releasing public radiation data, and even then the data was sporadic.

Hacking Together Radiation Data

The first challenge was obtaining monitoring equipment. In the first few days after the quake, no Geiger counters were available for purchase in the Tokyo area. What’s worse, according to Akiba the Geiger counters that were providing data weren’t much help. “There were very few data points from Geiger counters in Tokyo at the time, and most were located indoors,” he says. Walls and even windows block a great deal of ambient radiation, so indoor readings were much lower than outdoor readings.

So Akiba put out the call for Geiger counters through Tokyo Hackerspace–and soon got a response. Like many hackerspace projects, this effort has received assistance from other hackers around the world. The initial Geiger counters used in the project were from the Reuseum, an Idaho business that recycles old technology to new homes. Tokyo Hackerspace gladly ordered the counters, and–after making a few calls to figure out who was still flying packages into Tokyo–the group had the monitoring equipment quickly shipped in.

Once the Geiger counters were collected, Akiba–with the help of Tokyo Hackerspace–started work on the complex process of converting a Cold War-era Geiger counter to feed radiation data onto the Internet, a process that he chronicled on his blog. The procedure involved finding a way to convert the analog Geiger counter to give off a digital signal and then determining how to send that signal out to be shared on the Web.

The Project’s Current Status

Since that first hack started broadcasting radiation data a few weeks ago, Tokyo Hackerspace has developed some much more sophisticated tools and begun working with various partners to get radiation data to the public. Rather than using old equipment and an ad hoc approach for each and every sensor, Tokyo Hackerspace has developed a simpler Geiger counter kit using the open-source Arduino platform (an easy-to-program microprocessor that’s a DIY community favorite) along with a Geiger docking device for the iPhone.

Tokyo Hackerspace’s goal is to expand the sensor network out from Tokyo into the Fukushima region. Much as in Tokyo, many of the shelters in the Fukushima area lack monitoring equipment–and the absence of information is leading many people in the shelters to worry that they’re being exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation. Akiba, Tokyo Hackerspace, and their partners are hoping to help reassure the public.

Once the initial data is gathered around Fukushima, Tokyo Hackerspace is looking to switch over to a new task. According to MRE, another member of Tokyo Hackerspace, “the real goal is looking at long-term exposure [over months and years], as well as radiation ‘migration patterns’ over time.” It seems likely that, as in Tokyo, the radiation levels in the shelters around Fukushima will be safe. “However,” says MRE, “the cumulative exposure, while made in small doses, can add up. So tracking levels over the next six months to a year will be important.”

If you’d like to pitch in, consider contributing to the RDTN kickstarter for a radiation sensor network to help the project expand. For other options, see our guide to contributing to relief efforts without getting scammed.