Safecasting Iraq: Open Data to Open Doors

Last month I was invited to facilitate some data visualization workshops at the Peace Tech camps in Erbil Iraq. One of the NGO’s I was working with was attempting to visualize a study to raise awareness about the issue of depleted uranium in Iraq. Luckily I had run into Sean Bonner moments before boarding my plane in Cambridge and he loaned me a bGeigie device. I presented the device at PeaceTech Camp to an audience of Southern Iraq NGO’s, describing how it works during a presentation of new tools and technologies. This caught the attention of Layth Al-Salihi who runs an organization assisting children afflicted with Cancer in Basra, Iraq.

Layth at PeaceTech in Iraq

Layth at PeaceTech in Iraq

His son was diagnosed with cancer years ago and after a brave fight has recovered. Layth has turned his learning and energy from that experience back to helping other Iraqi families in Basra treat their children. He has helped set up play centers near hospitals, run training sessions for parents with afflicted children, and brought in medication for children who couldn’t afford treatment.

Layth believes the cause of his son’s cancer and the increasingly common birth defects in Basra step from the Gulf Wars and the radioactive ammo dropped over Iraq. Depleted Uranium is a heavy metal used to create armor piercing ammo and during the last few wars in Iraq the United States dropped around 1.4 tons of it in over 350 sites across the country. There is controversy over whether or not the depleted uranium has resulted in the growth of cancer and birth defect rates. A recently published World Health Organization study — The Summary of the Prevalence of Reported Congenital Birth Defects in 18 Selected Districts in Iraq — concludes with:

“… The rates for spontaneous abortion, stillbirths and congenital birth defects found in the study are consistent with or even lower than international estimates. The study provides no clear evidence to suggest an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects in Iraq.”

While the paper titled Environmental pollution by depleted uranium in Iraq with special reference to Mosul and possible effects on cancer and birth defect rates which was published in Medicine, Conflict and Survival summarizes it’s study with:

“The Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 left a legacy of pollution with DU in many regions of Iraq. The effects of these munitions may be affecting the general health of Iraqi citizens, manifesting in an increase in cancers and birth defects. Contamination has spread widely in the air, soil and water, particularly as dust in windstorms.”

These discrepancies have resulted in confusion and stagnation in assistance for Iraq’s public health projects. That’s why after presenting the bGeigie Layth came up to me and told me about the conflicting reports of cancer rates and depleted uranium in Iraq. Layth suggested that perhaps by creating an open data project that brought together a survey of hospital patients and the areas people live in who’ve gotten sick alongside a map produced by the Safecast API that could help create clarity around the issues of depleted uranium and the purported increase in cancer and birth defect rates.

We started to devise a plan to connect his NGO with the hackerspace in Iraq called Fikra Space to assist in taking the bGeigie out into Basra for samples. I work with a hackerspace crew in Iraq called Fikra Space and I suggested that we gather a team from the hackerspace and train them for future work in Basra. So after the PeaceTech camp ended I headed out to Baghdad and met up with the Fikra Space to run a radiation mapping workshop.

Some of the core team at Fikra Space: Nael, Jeff & Ahmed

The next day we got a crew together and hopped into Fikra Space member Ahmed’s Chrysler and spent the day driving to various places we suspected might have depleted uranium including some old abandoned military zones in the outskirts of Baghdad.

Radiation levels at abandoned vehicles

After driving around for a day we took the device home and used the Safecast API to upload and visualize this data. You can check the path we took and the readings we took on this map:

Map of radiation levels in Baghdad

Jeff and Salih from Fikra Space expressed interest in joining Layth in Basra to map the places where people are getting sick and I hope to join them in this initiative later this summer. We’re going to need of help in designing the study, funding, finding appropriate data formats, and analyzing the data.

I will leave you with a challenge. An article published on the Guardian has made me aware of the fact that “The International Coalition to Ban Depleted Uranium (ICBUW) has called for WHO to release the project’s data-set so that it can be subjected to independent, transparent analysis. The UN body continues to ignore these calls and defend the integrity of the research.”

This clearly shows the need for an open data response. I ask for your help in finding and publishing the data the WHO used for their study and aggregating any data from other studies you can find. I hope these will be the first datasets openly published in a series of sets that will help us understand and explore radiation and public health in Iraq.

Thanks to Sean, Joi, Ethan, Pieter for all your help.

Here are some investigative articles and papers that I found helpful in thinking about this post:


About the Author

Bilal Ghalib