Safecast Diaries: from Rest Stops to Real-Time Images, from the First bGeigie Trips to the Aftermath of 3.11

David Kell in 2011 ahead of the first-ever Safecast drive, equipped with Geiger counter and smartphone.

David Kell was among a rag-tag group of volunteers taking supplies to the Tohoku region in the weeks after the 2011 3.11 Tohoku disaster. Onboard were the very first incarnations of what would, over time, become the bGeigie geiger counters.

On March 11, 2020, David Kell found himself, quite by accident, staring out over a very familiar Tokyo car park. It was the exact same space that he and colleagues had run to when the Tohoku Earthquake struck Japan in the early afternoon hours of March 11, 2011.

At the time, he was giving a presentation in an office on one of the top floors of an aging, nine-floor office building.

“I distinctly recall the deep rumble of the ground that we heard before the quake struck. I’d never heard anything like it – nor have I since. The building didn’t have quake dampers like there are in modern Tokyo buildings, so it shook all over the place. We didn’t really think, but just looked at each other, grabbed the laptops and ran for the stairs,” David Kell remembers.

Very few people outside Japan are likely aware of how massive aftershocks continued to rip through the country for weeks afterward. Even in the first hours after the main earthquake, they struck, leaving people with a feeling of moving through one gigantic, hours-long quake with ebbs and flows. Like being caught up in ocean swells.

The subsequent tsunami and  Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns left the region with two things in short supply: daily necessities and trustworthy information.

“In many instances, Japan has a strong, admirable track record of disclosing detailed, believable data, but that wasn’t the case here. Many people, both in Tokyo where I live and in Tohoku, which I visited extensively throughout the first months after the quake and Daiichi meltdown, were as affected by the lack of information as the daily goods shortages. That situation generated its own aftershocks, some of which we feel to this day, for example when it comes to people’s trust in information relating to the coronavirus outbreak,” David Kell says.

One of the most esteemed British institutions is the pub where many great ideas have arisen, (although often they have also been forgotten within the hour.) Thankfully, this wasn’t the case for a project started by David, Rob Keyworth, Andy Abbey, along with other patrons of the now-defunct Black Lion pub in Meguro. The group arranged fundraisers for the Tohoku area. Around 2.3 million yen poured in.

The group of rag-tag volunteers decided to secure supplies and fresh produce which were in short supply and drive it north to the places in need, focusing on the coastal towns of Iwate, the route to which passed nearby the Fukushima power plants. So began six weeks of getting off from work early on Friday afternoon, renting trucks, and filling them with supplies. Then, around 5 pm, begin the slog up Honshu towards Tohoku across the earthquake-damaged highways. Often, the group would arrive around 3 or 4 am, catnapping in the truck cabins before staring deliveries throughout Saturday. The night was spent at friends’ houses before driving back to Tokyo on Sunday to get ready for another work week.

“Some of those early trips are full of images that have seared themselves to my mind. A 300-foot fishing trawler that had been picked up by the tsunami, like it were a matchbox car, and put down inland. Soldiers moving through debris that was like puzzle pieces from the lives of families, neighbours, school friends, town groups, all mashed into one by the tsunami. I had a camera with me, and I took a lot of pictures during the early days. About six months later, I looked through the images and decided to delete them. I had never shown them to anyone. Perhaps they were somehow too private. Like someone else’s private life and grief laid bare,” David says.

Other memories are a testament to the incredible resilience of the people in the area.

“We would drive through areas where whole cities had literally been wiped off the map. Where there was nothing left. Then we would come around a bend and there would be a house, precariously toppled to the side, with washing hanging outside. People went through 3.11 and got back up saying, ‘Life goes on. We won’t let this defeat us.’ I found that, and the warmth we encountered, incredibly inspiring.”

Ahead of one of the early trips, Dave was contacted by Pieter Franken from what would, over time, become Safecast. The two met and talked about various relief efforts, the lack of trustworthy data, and the possibility of combining relief efforts and the collection of radiation readings. The two quickly reached an agreement, and the first Safecast radiation measurement equipment went to Fukushima.

The first trip involved Dave and other volunteers stopping at petrol stations and rest stops, noting the location, finding a good spot, and scooping up a soil sample for analysis. Just a few trips later, indicating the speed at which iterations of the devices were evolving, the first GPS-enabled Safecast device was put aboard, This version would log radiation data as well as location, providing initial data for the global Safecast radiation map.

“Those data formed the basis of what grew into Safecast. And I think that I, as well as my co-pilot at the time Robert Keyworth, and Andrew Coed, plus other members of that Black Lion Pub crew, are honoured that we took part in what has grown so impressively since. The early data showed readings that were higher than expected – and in some cases higher than those reported by the Japanese authorities – but not at Chernobyl levels. I think that for us, as well as many others in Japan, those facts and figures were a first sense of security, in that they provided an objective foundation for making decisions on what to do,” David says.

“Here, nine years later, you can look back and see that Safecast was born at an opportune moment when mobile connectivity and cost-effective sensor platforms were available thanks to technological advances. This ability to measure, analyse, and communicate about the data, about the environment a person or group of people live in, is incredibly powerful. Today, everyone has the power to collect data, look through it, and find patterns. Then the next step is to share that information. It is amazing to think that we all have the power to do this today.”

“I also think that one of the biggest things with Safecast is that it is a testament to how technology can help build communities on or around anything from a hyper-local to a truly global scale.