Q&A: Why Safecast’s Global Director Has Moved To Japan

Sean Bonner during a panel debate

Safecast’s director of global operations, Sean Bonner, is adding another entry to an already long CV: moved to Japan in August, 2017. Besides looking forward to exploring the country and sharing his passion for Japan his family, the move means that Sean will be closer to the centre of the action when it comes to Safecast’s newest project: measuring air pollution.

We sat down for a Q&A session about the next steps for Safecast, his views on the importance of the data generated, and about Japan in general.

Starting with Safecast, how does the move to Japan fit?

It’s an interesting time for Safecast right now, I would say. We’ve been working on collecting air pollution data for a while, and that project is really gathering momentum. Being here, and being able to sit down face-to-face with other members of the Safecast group on a daily basis helps boost the speed with which we can move forwards with that project. The same goes for work on various projects that ties in with the gathering of radiation data.

Do you see the air pollution project as a new chapter? And if so, are there things from the gathering of radiation data that can be transferred to the air pollution project?

It’s not so much a new chapter as it’s like a second book that we’re putting on the shelf, next to the one that Safecast’s volunteers have been writing since 2011, about Safecast and radiation data. We’re by no means finished with radiation. That’s an important thing to underline. What we’re doing is working on finding ways to use our existing data-gathering platform on something besides radiation, something which also has an effect on humans and the environment, and which people want and need more information about.

Like with radiation, our approach is focused on – and built around – data, transparency, and community. Some of the things we have learned as a group can be smoothly transferred. The Solarcast, which is the name of the device that we’ve designed and built, is the culmination of many years’ of experience and learning. But when it comes to the thing we’re trying to measure, we are looking at a very different animal. Radiation is generally quite stable over time, whereas air pollution is constantly changing.

What are some of the reasons for looking at gathering data about air pollution?

It really started with what we learned about communicating about and visualizing radiation, which is something we can’t see. Air quality is similar in some ways, but it has both visible and invisible aspects. We have spoken with many different people about the subject, and done a lot of research, and kept coming back to the same conclusion: no-one is really solving the lack of open data on air quality either.

At the same time, there is little to no consensus about how to actually define “good” or “bad” air quality. What we have found during our research is that there aren’t any clear standards for air sensor readings.

It is a bit strange, since air pollution is an issue which is in the news and on peoples’ minds everywhere.

So what do you think that Safecast can contribute in this regard?

It might be too early to talk about possible solutions, but what I hope we can achieve is something similar to what our community has done in regards to radiation. Perhaps some volunteers are unaware of it, but their combined efforts have achieved something in just six years that scientific and public organizations have been unable to do over more than 40 years of trying: to generate an open and detailed picture of radiation levels across the world using the same measuring devices.

When we started back in 2011, I would say that the problem was not in and of itself that the Fukushima accident had spread radiation – the problem was that nobody knew where it was, and perhaps more importantly wasn’t. Or how to tell whether the radiation they could measure was normal or not. If you look at our map today, it tells that story clearly. It is a snapshot of what the radioactive world looks like.

It’s led to new insights for people about the communities that they live and work in. For example that radiation levels in Hong Kong are higher than anywhere in Tokyo, even in the time just after the Daiichi disaster. That really surprised all of us. And that prompted us to find out why – which turned out to mainly be the natural granite that is used in construction there.

The research and academic work using our data set is generating more insights all the time, and I hope that we can achieve something similar with regards to air pollution.

Your move to Japan includes adding another title to a long list. You’re going to be working at Keio University as a professor. What will your job be there?

This is primarily a research position and will be similar to some of the things I currently do at MIT, though perhaps a bit more involved because of the local proximity. I expect to write and publish some work relating to Safecast and perhaps visit it with some students, however I won’t be teaching regular classes or anything like that at this point. Who knows what tomorrow will bring though!

So, outside of Safecast, what is your connection with Japan?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by Japan. Actually one of my first online experiences was in the early 90’s when I helped build a website about some of the crazy toys that came out of the country back in the 60’s and 70’s. I also practice a Japanese martial art called Bujinkan, and have been coming to the country for many years in connection with work.

However, living in a place is very different from visiting, and I’m really excited about getting to grips with day-to-day life in Japan.

What are some of the things you are especially looking forwards to?

While I’ve been coming here regularly it’s always been for a specific purpose without much downtime, there are so many things I haven’t had a chance to explore. For example, I’ve never been to Kyoto. That’s one of the big ones. Also other parts of the country. One of the very biggest things I’m looking forwards to is sharing these experiences with my wife and son.