Before it was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, it was a tsunami. Waves reached heights over 40 meters, traveled at 700 km/h, and moved 10 kilometers inland before receding. Before it was a tsunami, it was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the largest ever recorded in Japan and the fourth-most powerful since modern record-keeping started in 1900.
That tsunami, which occurred exactly ten years ago today, resulted in over 20,000 deaths and displaced hundreds of thousands of families, some for years. It also led to Level 7 meltdowns of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex. Within 20 kilometers of the plants, residents were quickly evacuated, and the world watched, waited, and worried if another Chernobyl disaster was in the making.
Safecast & The Decade of Global Collaboration
But unlike Chernobyl, the effects of which were hidden from the global scientific community for years, the news of the disaster spread rapidly. Once informed, a confederation of citizen scientists responded to the crisis and its resulting challenges over email, chat discussion threads, and video calls.
Even if one were to set aside the political realities of the Cold War, the infrastructure for democratized global communication did not exist when the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986. Likewise, had Fukushima occurred just a decade earlier, the community response would have been much slower. Global broadband was only beginning its upward climb in 2001, and there would be no video collaboration tools to speak of until 2003.
But Fukushima happened on March 11, 2011. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011, humanity built broadband, cloud-backed, global communications infrastructure that made real-time dissemination of news and remote collaboration possible. In just a decade, we possessed the ability to be informed about and respond to a crisis in moments. We put ourselves on the Internet. It was the existence of this infrastructure that allowed the original Safecast team to form: first to connect, check-in, and help, and then to solve a new set of problems just beginning to emerge from the disaster.
IoT & The Decade of Global Insight
The biggest problem that citizens on the ground and the global scientific community faced in the early days of Fukushima was access to information. The government and local utilities had a view of the situation on the ground but did not share it. The rest of the world could only guess at the extent of the damage or the safety of the surrounding area.
In a decade, we’d connected ourselves over the internet, but the world and environment around us were still a mystery. And it was this world that Safecast was formed to change, first by deploying Geiger counters and radiation detection devices, then by expanding to air quality monitoring. And over the last decade, Safecast has deployed 5,000 radiation and air quality monitoring devices in 102 countries, collecting over 66,000 measurements each day.
That’s 5,000 spots globally with a better sense of their air quality than 10 years ago. 5,000 locations where citizens know if the air outside is safe and where data about their environment is accessible as a friend over a video call.
Over that same decade, the cost of sensors, silicon, PCBs, and radios continued to drop. A growing landscape of maker- and developer-friendly tools ushered in a Cambrian explosion of connected devices as the hype of IoT gave way to reality.
After 10 years, 5,000 devices, and millions of data points collected, organizations like Safecast do not consider their job complete. If anything, just as the democratization of broadband and the cloud laid the groundwork for IoT, the last decade has been a beta test of the value humanity can extract by adding devices to our environment. As environmental data from open datasets, a wildly successful test is being used to inform scientific research, shape policy, and help everyday citizens understand their world.
Just imagine what we could do by 2031.