COVID-19 testing, putting a face to the numbers

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 10:54

Earlier this week we launched the COVID-19 Testing Map. In only a few days we’ve already received contributions from across Europe, North America and Asia which is already beginning to tell a new piece of the story.

Since 2011 we have tried to create a platform that gives some control back to people, so they can have a say in their own narrative. In Fukushima, for example, residents have have been able to show that the prefecture is not a nuclear wasteland, as clickbait headlines might have people believe, but rather a vibrant and active population deeply invested in their future. By taking their own environmental readings and publishing their own stories, they’ve had some control in how they are represented rather than relying on someone outside to tell their story for them. We’ve seen similar experiences in other communities around the world as well.

In 2020, when the new Coronavirus began spreading around the world we immediately saw similarities and tried to offer some advice from our experience to make what was inevitably coming next go a little smoother. We knew we had to do more, but at the same time we didn’t want to just rush in and replicate things many others were doing well already. There was an ever-growing collection of dashboards and reported case numbers and visualized graphs, representing confirmed cases, tests and deaths. Through these we began to realize something was missing, a human element. Getting lost in the daily reports of which numbers had increased by what percent were the stories of the people who were suffering but not included in official accounting. It was already becoming clear that testing was not available to everyone, which was yet another point of pain.

Almost a decade ago we saw firsthand that a lack of information causes more stress, and more conflict. In 2011 there was a mandatory evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. People who lived in that area moved away immediately. But there was also a voluntary evacuation zone where people were given the opportunity to evacuate if they felt the need. Unfortunately, those people did not have access to an accurate and reliable source of information about what radiation levels they may or may not be exposed to if they stayed, which caused many to assume the worst and created significant social stress. People found themselves stigmatized and resented whether they moved away or decided to stay. Safecast was able to give these people a way to measure their own environments, to get accurate information from which they could then make educated decisions. This in turn put pressure on official sources to release more data as well.

Today the situation is not entirely dissimilar – if someone feels sick and thinks they might have been exposed to COVID-19 a test would allow them to know if they should quarantine themselves so as not to risk infecting others, and would allow them to know if they should be prepared to seek additional medical assistance. Do they go to work or should they stay home? Visit friends and family or isolate themselves? What if an older family member asks for assistance? Without access to testing, people are left wondering, and left to assume the worst – often alone. While we didn’t have a way to immediately get more tests to people, we did have a way to help those people tell their stories – with the hope that enough stories would create a compelling argument that would motivate politicians and governments to increase the availability of testing, to put people’s minds at ease and help people make better educated decisions.

So we put up our map and asked people to tell their stories. And in only a few days, the stories are pouring in. Not unexpectedly, the stories of people who have been turned away from testing are harrowing, and heartfelt. Here are a few examples:

Though not every story is heartbreaking, equally insightful are the stories from people who were able to get tests, and a stark contrast in some cases to read just how easy it was for that to happen. As these examples show:

The obvious point is that any of the people who received negative test results were set at ease. They could relax a bit and go back to their lives, as much as possible, without this stress hanging over their heads. Had they not been able to be tested, they may have spent weeks anxious and wondering, which could lead to other problems. Access to testing was more than just answering a question.

Sadly, not all test results have had a happy ending.

This is only a small sampling of the stories people are telling us. You can read them yourself at this page. Looking at the map view, zoomed out as well as closer in, patterns begin to emerge. As more people see this map, more stories will be contributed and it’s our hope that a larger picture will become clear and the need for comprehensive widespread testing will become obvious. People deserve to know what they’ve been exposed to and what they might be exposing others to. As a global community if we are going to take the appropriate steps to stop this pandemic, we need to, and deserve to have access to information about our health and our environments.

Making sense of COVID-19 numbers in Japan

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 07:32
Safecast has launched a crowdsourced COVID-19 testing information map. Please check it out and share it!

Last week we wrote an article about COVID-19 testing in Japan. We’ve also been publishing an (almost) daily newsletter, which we hope you’ll subscribe to here. For several weeks we’ve been pointing out that it’s difficult to find clear information about important aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. In the case of Japan, there has been continuing confusion about who qualifies for tests. We continue to hear many reports about people in Japan being denied testing or being persuaded by medical staff not to get tests, despite feeling they truly qualified based on their symptoms. This is leading to increased frustration and suspicion. As we pointed out last week, Japan has been an outlier so far among countries which appear to have “flattened the curve,” such as Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. In every other country that has done so, intensive testing has been essential. Japan has not been doing that, and continues to have one of the lowest COVID-19 testing percentages among developed nations. This, as we noted, is by policy. Where is it leading us?

The narrative that Japan has beaten the virus thanks to mask-wearing, good hygiene, no-handshaking, and cooperation with social distancing programs seems to be gaining currency in many corners lately. We agree that masks and regular hand washing, as well as the relative lack of skin-to-skin contact, may be helping to keep the contagion rate here low so far. But social distancing has been very lax, despite the closure of schools, cancellation of large events, and many people working from home. Parks are full every day with crowds enjoying cherry blossom viewing parties, and trains are pretty full too, as are bars and restaurants. We think that Japan has been lucky so far, while many can’t shake the suspicion that a much higher infection count is being obscured by the lack of testing and the miscategorization of COVID-19 deaths simply as pneumonia.

Prefectures and municipalities in Japan have a fair amount of autonomy when planning emergency response. A recent news report described a town in Wakayama Prefecture that implemented a thorough COVID-19 testing program with results good enough that it is now considered a model. A few days ago, the Governor of Osaka, Hiro Yoshimura, publicized task force findings (in Japanese) which indicated that by the first week of April, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures could have a combined COVID-19 case count of over 3300 people. The Tokyo Municipal Government is securing 4000 hotel rooms to use for additional hospital beds. I suspect we will hear of similar preparations in other Japanese locales in coming days. Though we can’t prove it, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) seems to have preferred that these deliberations not be made public until a coordinated policy could be announced. Governor Yoshimura deserves credit for setting a precedent for transparency by going public when he did. He was followed by Kanako Otsuji, a Representative from Osaka Prefecture, who provided helpful detail on Twitter (Japanese).

COVID-19 test data for Japan remains maddeningly ambiguous. As we noted previously, the government regularly presents two sets of numbers, one generally almost double of the other. The most recent numbers, as of March 23, are 20,340 (obtained from this chart) and 38,954 (this chart). We discussed with journalists and other knowledgeable people exactly what these numbers indicate, and many had concluded that the higher number refers to the actual number of tests, the lower number, to “official” tests. Osaka Representative Otsuji thankfully clarified in a March 18 tweet that although the larger number is listed as “cases,” in fact it refers to “samples.” Consequently, 20,340 is the number of individuals who have been tested in Japan as of March 23, many of whom were tested more than once. It was unacceptably difficult to resolve this ambiguity. If we had a hard time figuring it out, the general public would not be able to either. Back in 2013, when discussing the obscurity of Fukushima radiation monitoring data, we termed it “ADAP” — As Difficult As Possible to find and use. We think that remains the case here as well.

There is also a difficulty in obtaining data about the death rate from pneumonia in Japan. Because of the concern that the lack of testing means some deaths recorded simply as pneumonia might actually be due to COVID-19, there have been calls for MHLW to clarify the recent pneumonia case and death rates. Unlike influenza data, which is published weekly, similar pneumonia data seems to be unavailable. Writer Jake Adelstein recently tweeted that he contacted the ministry directly and was told that the pneumonia reporting period was every three years, and they had no intention of making an exception now. Again, this kind of inflexibility and lack of transparency only increases mistrust and suspicion. We don’t know why the Japanese government doesn’t realize that.

Ultimately, as Safecaster Joe Moross said the other day, though so far it looks like Japan has bent the curve, we’re still in round one of what will likely be a ten-round fight against the coronavirus. It’s way too early to ease off and declare victory.

Announcing The COVID-19 Testing Map

Mon, 03/23/2020 - 06:45

Today we are launching a crowdsourced map to help people document their experiences when seeking COVID-19 testing — were they able to get a test when they sought one, or not. One of Safecast’s founding beliefs is that people should have access to reliable and accurate information in order to make decisions about their own safety and that of their friends and families. We began to publish crowdsourced radiation and air quality data in order to provide an independent and credible source of information about these risks. COVID-19 is already having devastating impacts on communities around the world. People need to prepare for what’s coming and need good information to do that. We also believe they should have easy access to testing options to give reassurances about their own health and safety, and to help them make better decisions during this global emergency.

Currently, however, in many places around the world, official COVID-19 testing information is ambiguous and incomplete, and people are dependent on single sources of official information which may be neither relevant nor trustworthy. Due to the failure of test kits to arrive where needed, delivery of incomplete test kits, overly complicated approval processes, or favoritism and discrimination, it has become apparent that there is a gap between the availability of testing claimed by some governments and what is actually available. This is disturbingly reminiscent of what we saw after 3/11, which we’ve written about in more detail here. With the help and input of people around the world, this map will hopefully begin to provide a more accurate picture of the relative difficulty of obtaining testing in various locales. It’s our hope that by providing an alternative source of credible crowdsourced information, this map will become a useful tool with which to better target resources and hold governments and officials accountable.

The map can be found at

How to use this map:

  1. In the menu/navigation you will see options for “Refused Testing” “Testing Unavailable” and “Successfully Tested” which correspond to colored markers on the map. You can turn any of these markers on or off to get a clearer view.
  2. You can zoom in or out by clicking the map, or use the search to find specific locations.
  3. Selecting an individual point on the map will show you the specific details of that situation.
  4. To protect the privacy of contributors, locations shown on this map are obfuscated to within 1 km.
  5. To contribute your experience, please select the yellow + icon and then choose the option that best reflects your situation. A short survey will guide you through the details needed.
  6. All contributions are put into the public domain.
  7. For this map to most useful, we need as many people as possible to contribute their experiences – if you know someone else who has also been tested or has made attempts to get tested, please send them this map and ask them to consider contributing.


  • As all contributions to this map are crowd sourced, it would be impossible for us to guarantee the validity of any information and make no assurances as such. This map is provided as supplemental information only.
  • The survey options might not apply to every person, this is by design. We are not trying to create a map of people who aren’t feeling well or think they might be sick as there are a number of symptom maps being run by medical professionals who are much better equipped to process that kind of information. The purpose of this map is to highlight the disparity between the number of people who are getting tested, the number of people who are unable to get tested despite attempts, and how these numbers compare against official “tested” numbers being published by governments.

As this situation continues to evolve, we anticipate updating and adjusting this map as well as the data we collect and display. For resources and other information about Safecast’s efforts surrounding COVID-19, please see this page.

* A special thank you to our friends at Ushahidi for providing the open source software platform we are using this map. If you find a bug or would like to help improve the software for everyone who uses it please see Ushahidi’s contribution guidelines, if you find an error or want to fix something on our installation of it please use this github repository.

COVID-19 Testing in Japan: The situation and ramifications

Wed, 03/18/2020 - 02:47


Source: VOX

Basic COVID-19 testing numbers for Japan as of March 16, 2020:

  • Tested: 13,026
  • Detected: 1,496 (both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases)
  • Deaths: 24

Sources: Toyokeizai, MHLW, Japan Times, Vox

Compared to countries which have rolled out intensive COVID-19 screening and testing programs, like South Korea, Japan has not done much surveillance testing to date. According to Japan’s health ministry, as of March 6, 13,026 people in total have been tested, compared to over 200,000 in Korea. In fact, in terms of percentage of the population tested, while above the US, at the moment Japan ranks lower than the UK, Netherlands, Israel, Taiwan, Italy, Guangdong, China, and South Korea. Therefore people’s concern that the lack of testing here obscures a much wider incidence of coronavirus which is not being detected is understandable. Recent information suggests that asymptomatic carriers of the virus — those contract the virus but experience no physical symptoms of illness, like coughing or fever — account for 86% of the spread to other people. The testing situation in Japan in terms of percentages and timing seems fairly similar to that in the United States, which appears headed for severe healthcare system overload soon.

Source: Financial Times

It’s been difficult to get a solid understanding of what accounts for the very different outcomes we’ve seen, for instance, between South Korea, which appeared touch and go for a while but seems to have gotten past the worst, and Italy, where we see an ongoing and traumatic health system collapse. Many factors can account for the widely varied outcomes, and the scale, timing, and effectiveness of testing seems to have definitely been playing a large role. Countries that promptly established thorough testing regimes, like Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan, have fared much better so far in “flattening the curve” than those which haven’t. A lot of data is available which visualizes this, including the comparative graph above that has been frequently updated by John-Burn Murdoch of the Financial Times (paywalled). Unlike the steep exponential growth seen in most countries, the plot line curve for Japan is very similar in its reassuring shallow gradient to Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan, which suggests that COVID-19 is largely under control here as it is in those countries. But since, unlike those countries, Japan has not been doing thorough testing, why does the outcome appear similar so far?

The graph notes “isolation of elders” in Japan, positing it as a positive factor for limiting the disease spread. While some elderly care facilities have been closed in a handful of cities, this has not yet been widespread. It may well be that many elderly here have gotten the message and are self-isolating. While some in our network here in Japan have observed this, others have not. There has been other notable social distancing, through the closure of schools and the encouragement of working from home. There is significant evidence that despite the school closures and widespread cancellation of large events, social isolation is not being adhered to strongly in many places. Even now, bars, clubs, and restaurants are fairly full in Tokyo in the evening.

Japan, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan all have good personal hygiene norms, such as frequent hand washing. Except for Singapore, people in these countries also commonly bow instead of shaking hands. It is easy to imagine that behavioral norms like these might contribute to the apparent similarity of outcomes. Some have suggested that maybe face masks, which are commonly worn in all of these countries, especially now, might be similarly beneficial in limiting the disease spread. These questions require good evidence to either prove or disprove, and unfortunately, we have to admit that for the most part nobody knows for sure.

Until now, testing for the virus in Japan has been limited by policy. There is no official body like the US CDC tasked with handling emergency public health issues. Instead, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), under the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) has taken the lead. All requests for COVID-19 testing, we are told, must be approved by this body, which is currently overloaded. As many people have noted, including several we’ve heard from who have enough of the symptoms to strongly suspect they have coronavirus but have been unable to obtain a test in Japan, the NIID has set a high hurdle of conditions which must be met before tests will be approved. In order to qualify for the first medical consultation, the person must have been in close contact with a known infected person, defined as contact over a long period of time or living together, examining or caring for a patient without taking protective measures, or contact with bodily fluids, and currently have fever of 37.5’ Celsius or respiratory symptoms; and/or had visited an endemic area in Hubei or Zhejiang Provinces, and currently have fever of 37.5’ Celsius or respiratory symptoms. Those who call Japan’s Novel Coronavirus Patient Consultation Call Center (03-5320-4592/03-5285-8181) and are recommended for in-person outpatient consultation must then appear at the designated center and be examined. If the doctor suspects COVID-19, he can recommend a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, and seek approval from the NIID for it. In practice, we are told, the NIID is so inundated with requests it is often difficult for doctors to get through by phone. This system presents a strong bottleneck to testing.


As is unfortunately often the case, it is difficult for average citizens to understand or navigate this system and its requirements, and many are becoming quite frustrated and alarmed. If they’re feeling ill with similar symptoms, they want to know how serious their prognosis is. A recent article in the Nikkei Asian Weekly attempts to explain the policy. The capacity is there, the writer notes, and the number of tests has been limited because the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare wanted the data to support an epidemiological investigation, not as medical care. In particular, the policy focuses on identifying clusters of the disease, to help in the allocation of medical resources. This is also emphasized in official policy documents from February 25th of this year, available at the MHLW website:

“Establish the surveillance system to grasp the epidemic situation in Japan, while switching to use of PCR test for the confirmation of diagnosis necessary to treat pneumonia patients who require hospitalization, in communities where the number of patients continues to increase.”

“The local government shall use active epidemiology surveys to identify a cluster based on individual patient outbreaks in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and experts, and request the necessary measures including closure of the related facilities and voluntary restraint of events if there is a possibility that such a cluster exists.”


“Shift the focus of PCR test to the confirmation of diagnosis for pneumonia patients who require hospitalization, while strengthening the surveillance system to grasp the epidemic situation in Japan.”

Ministry staff felt that surveillance testing should be adequate for understanding the scale and geographical distribution of the outbreak, but that too much testing, particularly of “worried well,” would overwhelm the system. Notably, the government decided against allowing rapid test kits developed by the pharmaceutical company Roche, which have been used with success in Wuhan and elsewhere, to be used in Japan, fearing that the variability of test results would hamper nationwide epidemiological analysis. After criticism, the government agreed to allow the Roche tests to be used and eligible to be covered by Japanese public health insurance from March 6. Beginning March 16, laboratories and medical institutions tasked with testing for COVID-19 have also been able to purchase kits from Kurabo Industries Ltd. that can detect the virus in 15 minutes, as opposed to up to six hours required for PCR tests. Other companies hope to have similarly rapid testing materials available in Japan within a few weeks. We hope that these developments mean that testing in Japan will increase quickly. A few days ago Prime Minister Abe promised that by the end of March Japan’s nationwide COVID-19 sample testing capacity will increase to 8000 per day from the current 6000. Even so, some prefectures only have the capacity to test a little more than 100 samples per day.

Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a celebrated public health specialist who has served as a science adviser to the Cabinet and chaired the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), is also a Safecast advisor. In a recent Japan Times article he is quoted as saying, “Any patient who comes to the doctor, if they have a reasonable suspicion (of having coronavirus), and they want this testing, just do it…And what is the price? That comes later anyway.” The epidemiological study is necessary, but it is equally necessary to transparently alleviate people’s legitimate concerns. He notes the reluctance of officials to approve the outsourcing of COVID-19 testing because it’s not clearly “written into law,” a situation which often leads to government paralysis in Japan. Officials may agree in private that it should be done, but no-one wants to take responsibility for breaking the rules even during an emergency. Kurokawa strongly recommends streamlining the outsourcing of testing to university labs and the private sector.

It’s possible, then, that there has been (barely) enough testing in Japan to allow public health specialists to anticipate the eventual spread of the virus and to prepare the necessary hospital beds. But Kurokawa wryly notes, “Nobody knows.” Is it possible that there is a much larger rate of contagion in Japan which is not being detected? Yes, but the corresponding hospitalizations and fatalities have not been evident. If the numbers were growing exponentially like in most countries, it would seem hard to hide that fact. Is it possible that many Japanese, particularly elderly, are dying of pneumonia or other respiratory diseases which are not being diagnosed as COVID-19? It seems possible. Hospitals are not required to share such data, though, and autopsies are normally performed on fewer than 2% of all deaths. Recent funeral rite guidance has indicated, however, that because the deceased are generally not being tested for coronavirus, all who have died of pneumonia should be handled with the same precautions as if they had the virus.

That said, if there was a very large number of highly contagious cases serous enough for hospitalization, we might expect a corresponding increase in respiratory illness among medical workers, which so far has not been evident. Again, however, hospitals are not required to report this. At present, the lack of widespread surveillance testing cannot be reassuring regardless of the comparatively small number of COVID-19 cases reported here so far. We cannot exclude the possibility that Japan might yet experience an exponential growth in cases, and feel that under the circumstances it’s prudent to be prepared for the case numbers to explode in coming weeks. What’s the likelihood of that happening? Without reliable data, nobody knows.

COVID-19 Action Update

Mon, 03/16/2020 - 12:00

It’s been almost 2 weeks since we published our initial response, best practices and initial assessment to the global Coronavirus outbreak and we wanted to give you an update on our ongoing efforts and actions. Since then the situation has continued to develop and last week we expanded on some of the ideas in our initial post in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists entitled “What the Fukushima meltdowns taught us about how to respond to coronavirus” which we hope will help pass on some of what we’ve learned from the experience of the last 9 years. But we do not intend to be exclusively reflective in this situation which we expect will continue to impact us all in various levels of severity.

As a proactive measure we were able to assist our friends at The GovLab and The Federation of American Scientists to build this chatbot to help people quickly access information and answer some of their questions. This is the first step of many.

Here at Safecast we’ve put up a new section which will serve as a directory to efforts and resources – including a new daily newsletter for COVID-19 related info. In the coming days we hope to have more work to share, and will post it on as soon as we do.

Best Practices In Reference To COVID-19

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 04:03

As we observe the global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the responses to it, we can’t help but feel a bit of déjà vu. Since Safecast began in March 2011, we’ve accumulated significant experience and insight about trust, crisis communication, public perception, and what happens when people feel threatened by the lack of reliable information and start taking matters into their own hand. Some of that learning will be useful in today’s situation. With efforts towards mutually beneficial outcomes for everyone, we are sharing a few high level best practices from our own experiences. (Please note: Our expertise is in communities and environmental monitoring, not virology or epidemiology. We have collected a list of reliable experts and information sources at the bottom of this article.)

Our advice to governments:

  • Prioritize transparency. There is no outcome where misleading the public today is beneficial tomorrow. Conversely, honesty will pay future dividends like crazy.
  • Safety first. Do not risk the long term health of your constituents for short term political gain. Keeping people from getting sick should not be a partisan issue. 
  • Trust is not a renewable resource. This isn’t the 1920’s anymore, people have many sources of information to turn to–if they don’t feel they can trust you they will simply look somewhere else and not look back. 
  • Effective messaging is crucial. Get your best trained crisis communicators in front of the public often and let them do the talking. If politicians demand to be part of the media appearance, that should be limited to a brief expression of compassion and concern then it hand over to the experts immediately. Experts should not put in a situation where they have to immediately correct or contradict what politicians have just said.
  • Travel bans, quarantines, and school closures are highly disruptive measures. They should not be enacted without carefully thinking through the ramifications and the difficulty of deciding when to stop them. The specific conditions of their implementation and for ending travel bans or other closures should be explicit before they are enacted and carefully explained to the public beforehand.

Our advice to media:

  • Resist the urge to rush to publish scoops which haven’t been fact checked. Misinformation spreads much faster than after-the-fact corrections.
  • Fact check claims, and provide sources for assertions. Cite scientists and institutions by name, and avoid “unnamed government officials.”
  • If your site is paywalled, consider disabling that function for articles relating to this situation. We understand that people need to be paid for their work, but restricting information that can impact the health of entire populations to only those who can afford it is not a good policy.

Our advice to people:

  • Wash your hands frequently, and correctly.
  • Be aware that physical contact is a primary route of transmission, think twice before shaking hands, etc..
  • Don’t share utensils, drink from communal cups, etc.
  • Face masks are not very effective. However, in some countries such as Japan they serve a valuable social signaling function, indicating that the individual is aware of the risks and is taking precautions and thinking of others.
  • However, in the same way that the global run on Geiger counters after 3/11 meant that there were not enough available for the people in Japan who really needed them, the current run on face masks means medical personnel and others who care for the sick might not have enough.
  • Recommendations will vary from place to place, while following the global situation is useful it is far more important to understand your local situation. Follow local & regional  CDC/medical announcements, advice and situation reports.
  • Regardless of the current situation in your area, you should prepare to stay indoors at home for two weeks if that becomes necessary or advisable at some point. 

Similarities exist between the events of 2011 and what we’re seeing in 2020. It’s not unusual to fear the unknown and aa both radiation and viruses are invisible threats, general anxiety is heightened. Average people have almost no way to determine for themselves if they’ve come into contact with either. We must rely on specialists, measurements and testing devices, as well as government and media reports. How governments behave during the initial days and weeks of a crisis will determine whether or not the public trusts what they have to say going forward–or seeks out alternative explanations instead, often in the form of online rumors. In 2011, the Japanese government did not provide timely and credible information to the public about the spread of radiation. The media failed in holding representatives accountable, checking sources and providing useful information when it was most needed. Trust was lost at the outset and has not been regained even nine years later. We’re seeing the same patterns emerge in regard to COVID-19. Governments are inadequately prepared to handle the incident, and official statements have been vague, contradictory and/or misleading. Vital information the public needs to know has been routinely omitted, or in some cases removed after the fact. Good crisis communication is possible, but failing to provide level-headed, straightforward information only makes matters worse. 

It is our assessment that many governments are currently prioritizing the minimization of their own political risks over helping the public deal with valid health concerns. This is bad for everyone.

Due to this information vacuum and the sense of helplessness/abandonment people feel, rumors have been rampant. The rumors are not only about the virus itself and its health consequences, but about its effects on travel, lifelines, business, and the ability to take adequate precautions. In Japan, though experts say they’re of little help, face masks have been unavailable for weeks. Hand sanitizer is sold out everywhere. There’s also been a nonsensical run on toilet paper, which we’re now seeing spread through Europe and North America as well. Will international travelers be required to enter quarantine in some countries? It’s a distinct possibility with huge ramifications, and trustworthy government spokespeople should have weeks ago started explaining when and why such a step might be taken, and for how long. But no such information has been provided. As in 2011, the lack of trustworthy information has spawned fast-traveling conspiracy theories which are easily debunked but remain in wide circulation regardless. 

Another parallel we see with the Fukushima events of 2011 is the stigmatization of the affected populace. In Asia this has led to a rash of anti-Chinese sentiment, overseas it has manifested as a rise in generalized anti-Asian racism. Fukushima has suffered serious stigma which has damaged the long term market for goods produced there, and we can anticipate that areas of the globe that experience COVID-19 outbreaks will suffer similar in the months and years to come. We’ve already seen a few widely publicized confrontations in the street and on trains, touched off by people coughing or cutting into a line to buy face masks – this is a direct result of a misinformed public and should be seen as a preview of what is to come elsewhere if misinformation is allowed to keep spreading unchecked.

The most responsible governments have already explained to their citizens how and why various disruptive decisions might be made, and the steps being taken to minimize the impacts. Unfortunately a number of countries, Japan and the United States included, have not. These countries have not been testing the populace widely, and as their testing programs ramp up the number of detected cases will certainly rise, in some cases alarmingly. One positive point is that so far children do not seem to be affected much, and in fact about 80% of the cases contracted by adults have been mild. For most of us, the inconvenience we experience due to the spread of the virus will be far worse than the virus itself. On the other hand, the elderly and people with certain existing health problems will suffer the most serious effects from the virus, and account for most of the fatalities to date. Precautions should be focussed on protecting those most vulnerable.

Useful additional information:

Keep in mind that the situation is fast-changing, and while it can be exhausting and stressful to continually process information like this, it’s important to stay as current as possible.

This post will be updated as becomes appropriate.

An Open Letter, 9 Years of Safecast

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 01:53


Tara, Ripley & Sydney, Los Angeles circa 2011

In 2011 I was living with my family in Los Angeles. We lived in a little grey 2 bedroom 1 bath house once occupied by Henry Rollins, an author & musician whose punk rock/DIY ethics & integrity had already played a formative role in my life. In early March I would celebrate my son’s first birthday, and a few days later a triple disaster on the opposite side of the planet would completely change the course of my life. Over the following weeks and months I’d find myself staying up 24 hours at a time coordinating with people in every timezone imaginable trying to find information and answers for friends and family directly impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown playing out in Fukushima. The government systems had failed, and we thought we could help. Be it art or activism, if you know me you know I’ve spent most of my life pushing against the boundaries of established norms, refusing to just accept the status quo. I would make several trips to Japan to work with others like me, taking our first steps towards a solution to a problem much larger than most of us realized at the time. Eventually the back and forth would become too much, and in 2017 as a family we decided to upend our lives and move around the world so as to better focus on the project that had become Safecast. As we approach the 9 year anniversary, I’m writing from Tokyo to ask you to join me.

We began Safecast with a push towards transparency, quickly growing to address the larger issues of trust and openness and forced a reassessment of what we all should expect from environmental monitoring projects. In a world where devices can be bricked anytime a company pivots, where EPA datasets and research disappear overnight, where a single politician can undo decades of work out of spite or where government regulations are written to augment an industry’s financial goals rather than the health of the people or the protection of our environment we stood up and said not anymore. If we can’t trust the companies and governments to look out for us, we’ll do it ourselves without them. We put all of our data into the public domain to ensure everyone can use it, and no one can ever delete it. My son will be able to show his grandchildren this data and it will be just as useful then as it is now. All of the devices we designed are open and futureproof, ensuring they will work as intended for as long as someone feels like repairing them. In a few short years this community built the largest open radiation dataset ever collected, larger than the combined datasets published by every government today. This information reshaped evacuation zones and helped people make life changing decisions. We’ve built a real time monitoring network that lets residents know about changes in their environments in minutes. From Tokyo I was able to see how smoke from brush fires was directly impacting my friends back in Los Angeles because of Safecast air sensors that were up and running. This system was unimaginable a few years earlier when I was in LA worrying about friends in Japan and week or month old data was the best anyone could find. Our global volunteer team has helped us to build a comprehensive map allowing people to see measurements on the streets in front of their houses, all over the world. In addition to the tools and deployments we’ve developed curriculum, lesson plans and tutorials to help people understand how this works, and do it for themselves without relying on us. In a world where companies are trying to find new ways to lock people into their ecosystems, we’ve actively worked to make sure these systems can function even without us. 

In the nonprofit world it’s commonplace to spend half your time fundraising in order to spend the other half doing the work. At Safecast we focus the majority of our time and energy on the work and the funding has come through recognition of our results. We’ve been lucky to have the incredible support of Reid Hoffman, Shuttleworth Foundation, Knight Foundation and others like them with courage, vision and the ability to see the long term picture. Their wonderful donations have covered the majority of our bills year over year. We’ve been able to have the kind of tangible, global, long term impact that we have precisely because we get to spend our time working doing the work without fundraising as a distraction. But that also creates a dependency where our ongoing work relies on a single person or a single donation, which isn’t healthy. We started this project with a recognition that “the way things work” wasn’t working and a belief that we could find a new way, and I think we’ve done that. Similarly, we think the way that nonprofits are expected to survive is broken, and believe there has to be a better way. “That’s the way it’s always been done” is a terrible reason to keep doing something, especially when it’s obviously not working. We reimagined what environmental monitoring could be, and now we are reimagining how to fund it. Safecast is not flashy. We are not a trendy startup looking for a quick exit, we’re not selling data out the back door to jack up our valuation. We aren’t looking for a hockey stick increase in market share. We are a passionate global community committed to a reliable solution that can be counted on today, tomorrow, and in the years to come. While we deeply appreciate the funders who have helped us get this far, if we want to be truly robust our funding needs to come from our community. Rather than relying on one person donating $100k, I want 100 people to donate $1k. A few hundred volunteers with geiger counters built the largest radiation dataset ever amassed while politicians sat around talking about why they couldn’t do it. That’s the proof that a few committed people can do the work that everyone else will benefit from. That’s what I’ve spent the last 9 years of my life focused on. Safecast is deploying sensor networks and building datasets that will benefit us all for generations–we didn’t ask permission or get anyone’s approval to do this, it’s just what we do.

My 45th birthday is at the end of this month. For my birthday I’m hoping to find 100 people to commit to giving $100 a month to Safecast for 1 year. These donations are tax deductible. That money will go a long way towards paying for salaries, servers and sensors. But more importantly, it will prove that a few people who care can positively impact the world. I hope you’ll join me.

Thank you,

Sean Bonner

BGeigie Diaries: What Covering 2,000 Kilometer of Japan – On Foot, With A Camera – Can Teach You

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 08:53

A map of Stefan Speidel’s walk and bGeigie measurements.

Covering 2,000 kilometers of Japan on foot with a bGeigie on his back was a journey of rediscovery for Stefan Speidel. As an avid photographer, Stefan documented his journey taking pictures along the entire way. 

Get up; get ready; get going; get lost in thought; get connected to the country and its people; get to the end of the day upload data; go to sleep; wake up; repeat. 

Stefan Speidel’s more than 2,000-kilometer trek across Japan on foot doesn’t fit well into one sentence. Luckily, the idea of a picture saying the same as a thousand words helps. Stefan is an avid photographer and carried a trusty Leica, as well as a Safecast bGeigie, along with him.  

After 30 years at Siemens AG, mostly in Japan, Stefan had a list of things that he wanted to do. It included a journey of rediscovery of Japan and the Japanese. Below is his description of his trip, and his thoughts about Japan, Safecast, and open data.

Stefan Speidel: The starting point was a desire to walk along some of the old kaido, the highways that connected Tokugawa-era Edo with other provinces. Specifically, I wanted to walk the Tōkaidō, as well as the Nakasendō, which both connect Edo/Tokyo and Kyoto via different routes across central Honshu — one along the Pacific Ocean, the other through the mountains.

I was going to start in April and set myself three months for this journey. I calculated that if I averaged 22 – 25 kilometers a day I would be able to cover around 2,000 kilometers during that time, giving me the chance to expand my journey beyond Kyoto and further to the western parts of Japan.

These shoes carried Stefan Speidel – and a bGeigie – 2,000 kilometers across Japan.

Packing lightly was a priority. I made a list of things that I would like to bring and compared it to a goal of carrying a maximum of ten percent of my body weight. In the end, I had three-four sets of clothing, some rain gear, a hat, my camera, a  MacBook Air and a bGeigie.

Early on in the trip, I met an old man who had been doing similar trips. His motto was ‘start early, move slow, and keep going.’ For him, that involved starting at 4.00 in the morning. I think his motto is sage advice for much more in life than walking. Although I’m less sure about starting the day at 4.00 in the morning…

Stefan Speidel on his walk.

My own rhythm quickly turned into walking about 4 km/h for up to ten hours a day. That way, I would surpass 25, 35, and on occasion, even 40 or more kilometers in a single day. The limit for any given day was rarely a lack of strength in my legs. More often I felt I needed more time to process all the things I was seeing. 

Walking, especially by yourself, lets you look around and take the time to digest the scenery and people. It gives you a different view on many things, and I would often find myself around the middle of the day wondering ‘why are people so busy?’ I know it’s a question that, at the time, was partly based on my luxury of being able to focus on just observing what was around me, but I do think people tend to forget to move at their own speed and stop to appreciate their surroundings from time to time.  

The trip itself was a patchwork of experiences that I’m in some ways still processing. Meeting people along the way, having small conversations, walking parts of the way with different people and connecting with them in ways that are difficult in the rush of daily life. One of my favorite memories was when my German friend and I walked into a narrow valley where two guys were fixing the roof of a reed hut. I asked about what they were doing, and it turned out that the house was a zen retreat. The priest in charge told us that he had trained with a German abbot. After a bit of back-and-forth, we discovered that we had a common acquaintance, a Japanese friend who lives in Tokyo. The coincidence of making the connection could only have happened by taking the time to stop in that remote valley. 

While walking, you get to see a mix of the road infrastructure, from lush mountain trails and side roads to the national highways with heavy traffic. Most of the heavily trafficked roads have sidewalks, but you still have to be watchful. In a way, I think the contrast between the highway stretches and the backroads, coastal roads, and trails make the latter seem even more beautiful and peaceful. 

A picture from the road.

One of the more surreal experiences was walking through a 1.4-kilometer-long tunnel. You really don’t know how much noise a car makes in a tunnel until you’re stuck walking next to them for a stretch like that. The air was quite cool, but I remember how I emerged back in the light, soaked in sweat. It must have been scarier than I realized at the time.

The sights, smells, and sounds of Japan are so varied that you come to appreciate the typical nature of many of them. The smell of soy sauce wafting from homes around dinner time, the sound of temple bells, and the uncountable different nuances of green, and the many roadside shrines. It all gives a feeling of being in and connected to Japan in a way that is difficult for especially foreigners – even those who have lived here for a long time – to achieve.

During the journey, I had a bit of an online network that talked about what I was doing and what my plans were. People were extraordinarily kind and generous. They gave me recommendations on where to stay and who I should try to meet along the way. It was a good example of the way that technology can connect us and let us share experiences with each other. 

I guess that’s also part of why I’m involved with gathering data for Safecast. My initial connection to the organization comes through Pieter who I know through a shared interest in photography. We met at a Leica event. 

Day 1 on the Saba Kaido. Obama to Kaminegori. Fukui, Japan.

That was back before the Tohoku quake struck… Speaking of which, I was in Tokyo when it happened. I had been out with my boss and we were going back to the office in a company car. We were pulling into the garage, and I first thought that the driver was going crazy, alternating between the brake and accelerator as fast as he could. Then we realized that everything was shaking and the buildings around us were moving back and forth.

Having lived in Japan for a long time, I’ve experienced a lot of earthquakes, but I immediately felt that this earthquake was different. It was more powerful than anything I had ever experienced before. As I remember it, we heard of the tsunami warnings pretty quickly after the quake hit. Scary figures of tsunamis 6 or 7-meter high, which later proved to be poor estimates. But at the time I was focused on making sure my wife and daughter, who was 17 at the time, were safe, as well as ensuring that everyone at the office was okay. I was in central Tokyo when the earthquake hit, 20 kilometers from home. In the evening, I started making my way back on foot. There were hundreds of thousands of people walking because public transportation was not working. It was very quiet, and while there was no sense of drama, the silence and focus on getting home created a very strange atmosphere. One of the only places you could definitely feel something afoot, apart from the number of people in the streets, was the convenience stores. Their shelves were all completely bare. 

I made it home safely and managed to communicate a little with friends and family. It was only the next morning that I saw the first images from Tohoku. Even then, the scale of the disaster was not really known Around noon that day, we learned that Fukushima Daiichi had what seemed like an explosion, but there was definitely no talk of a meltdown that day. 

Fukuroi, Shizuoka, Japan.

Later we saw the images from Fukushima. I think most people who were in Japan at the time will attest to the fact that the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown, changed them on some fundamental level. I mean, we saw images like the ones of someone trying to survive by clinging to an antenna as the waters swept around them. Imagine the amount of stress that person must have undergone – and the strength it took to hang on. Or the scenes in Onagawa where the waters toppled concrete buildings, some four and five stories high, and swept smaller ones up, carrying them first inland and then off out to sea.

When we heard about the meltdown at Daiichi, an additional issue arose. We needed to make decisions with very limited information, both personally and at the company. How dangerous was the situation? Should we stay in Tokyo or move west away from the plume? Even with the technical expertise that we had in the company, these were hard questions to answer without more data. And data was practically non-existent.  At the same time, trust in information coming from the government was low and fading.

I wanted to have my own Geiger counter to be able to measure what was going on. And I wanted to have access to the data that other people measured. Today, I would say that Safecast offers reliable information about radiation levels not only in Japan but across the world. I am happy if my walk can do a little bit to support that.

Toyohashi, Aichi, Japan.

We need to get back to figuring out facts. What is true and not true must be grounded in data and information. That is the basis for making informed decisions. Without data, we cannot judge if an area is dangerous or not. Even with data, it is hard for people to decide if a potential risk is acceptable. Therefore, we need comparable data sets. Having only one data source is not trustworthy, and it does not provide an opportunity to compare results to others.

Without sufficient and open data, we cannot make progress and get a better understanding of radiation’s potential impact on our health. Again, this is not just something that covers the people who were in Fukushima during the disaster, and the time since. To this day, we still don’t have any consensus on how much radiation is OK. 

Stefan Speidel has written a fantastic book about his journey. It is now available on Amazon.