HOME
          
LATEST STORY
At Datalore, data plus storytelling means empathy, humor, and games
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 21, 2012, 1:56 p.m.
Audience & Social
la-smog-cc

After tracking radiation levels in Fukushima, Safecast is measuring air quality in the states

Knight News Challenge funding will help Safecast spearhead data collection in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Detroit.

When a nuclear crisis came on the heels of the March 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, there was an outcry from those seeking accurate information about radiation levels in various prefectures.

The situation prompted a group of friends to launch a crowdsourced Geiger-counting effort — which eventually grew into Safecast, a network for collecting and mapping radiation measurements across the world.

Now, with a $400,000 Knight News Challenge grant, Safecast will expand its efforts into air quality testing — starting in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. Safecast cofounder Sean Bonner says the project will help identify good and bad air quality on a granular, neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. He’s also hoping to track changes in air quality over short periods of time. So say you live near the freeway: How much does air quality change during rush hour?

“If there are hundreds or thousands of sensors in the city, you can actually pinpoint where and when the air was changing,” Bonner told me. “It’s sort of the same thing we saw with radiation — these big general averages of an entire city aren’t very useful. Once we get more sensors out there, we think it will be.”

As with the radiation project, everything will be open sourced. Once the data starts flowing in, reporters will be able to ask questions about the areas that have the best and worst air quality. Because Safecast relies on individuals to contribute data, there’s no way to know how many sensors will be disseminated. One key difference is that the air quality will change “much more frequently” than radiation levels do. But similar to radiation, there are already assumptions that people have about air quality in certain areas. Bonner says those attitudes will help determine where initial sensors are placed.

“There’s lots of speculation about what places have bad air or good air and why,” Bonner said. “Obviously, we can’t go to a plant that everyone suspects pollutes and say, ‘Hey, let us put a sensor on your front door,’ but a neighborhood [that thinks it has bad air quality] will probably be receptive. People who really want to know that data are going to be the ones who are the early adopters.”

And getting individuals on board is key to building a comprehensive, accurate database. “If it’s tied to an industry or tied to the government — if it’s tied to any single source — you can’t trust it because you don’t know what the motives are behind that source. Having lots and lots and lots of independent monitors is a much more reliable source.”

On the wish list from here: Water quality testing and food contamination testing, both of which are costlier and more complicated than tracking radiation levels and air quality. “Water would be fantastic,” Bonner said. “Water and food, those are both things we get a lot of requests for. There’s just not a simple solution. If we keep moving down this line, hopefully we’ll get there.”

Photo by jbarreiros used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2012, 1:56 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2012
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
At Datalore, data plus storytelling means empathy, humor, and games
At the MIT Media Lab, teams of designers, developers and storytellers pulled stories from eight different data sets.
Tied up at home? Have some Nieman Lab #BlizzardReads
Many of our readers on the East Coast are cooped up in their homes. To rescue them from boredom, here are a few recent Nieman Lab stories you may have missed.
U.S. journalists, the clock is ticking: January 31 is the deadline to apply for a Nieman Fellowship
It’s a chance to spend a year at Harvard and change the shape of your career.
What to read next
2588
tweets
Don’t try too hard to please Twitter — and other lessons from The New York Times’ social media desk
The team that runs the Times’ Twitter accounts looked back on what they learned — what worked, what didn’t — from running @NYTimes in 2014.
728From explainers to sounds that make you go “Whoa!”: The 4 types of audio that people share
How can public radio make audio that breaks big on social media? A NPR experiment identified what makes a piece of audio go viral.
705Q&A: Amy O’Leary on eight years of navigating digital culture change at The New York Times
“In 2007, as digital people, we were expected to be 100 percent deferent to all traditional processes. We weren’t to bother reporters or encourage them to operate differently at all, because what they were doing was the very core of our journalism.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Fuego is our heat-seeking Twitter bot, tracking the links the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about most on Twitter.
Here are a few of the top links Fuego’s currently watching.   Get the full Fuego ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Mashable
Conde Nast
Talking Points Memo
U.S. News & World Report
Frontline
Newsmax
Journal Register Co.
McClatchy
Knight Foundation
Baristanet
New Haven Independent
Houston Chronicle