By DYLAN WALSH
The small nonprofit Safecast is applying lessons learned from measuring radiation post-Fukushima to the pervasive and growing problem of urban air quality. Buoyed by a $400,000 prize from the Knight Foundation, the group is designing low-cost environmental sensors that measure air quality every minute and post the data publicly. The sensor system, which uses off-the-shelf components, will make its debut in Los Angeles.
The idea emerged from radiation monitoring after a earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan last year and raised public alarm over radiation exposure.
“I have a lot of friends in Japan,” said Sean Bonner, a Safecast co-founder. In the aftermath of the disaster, he said, “they couldn’t get any information, cell networks were down, people just didn’t know what was going on.”
Working with a constellation of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and hackers around the world, Mr. Bonner set out to collect the data sought by his friends and make it easily accessible, but the team quickly hit a wall: the data they wanted did not exist. “Before we realized it, we were building Geiger counters, figuring out how to take lots of measurements and make the devices mobile,” Mr. Bonner said.
So Safecast was born. Beyond Geiger counters, the group considered other opportunities for environmental monitoring and recognized that air quality reporting “suffered from a lot of the same problems as radiation,” Mr. Bonner said. The data is often licensed and unavailable for public distribution, and where it does exist, numbers tend to be imprecise spatial and temporal averages.
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.