The Bgeigie Diaries: Daiichi and the Dutch connection

Rob Oudendjik is one of the very early Safecast members. He was involved in many of the projects that laid the foundation for the current generation of bGeigies, as well as the way that Safecast gathers its data. He shares his memories of the early Safecast days, as well as what keeps him involved six years after the disaster at Daiichi.

Rob, Yuka, and Kitty-chan at Kitty Wood.

You were in Japan at the time of the disaster. I wondered if you could share how your initial connection to Safecast came about?

That would be through my fellow Dutchman Pieter Franken, who I got to know through a system we were working on for the Dutch Embassy that would help give updates to and about Dutch people in Japan in case of an emergency.

It worked as a message chain that would ask people is they needed help or if they were OK. One of the things that we discovered in 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami was that SMS worked much better than other things like trying to contact people through satellite phones. This was partially because much of their bandwidth was suddenly occupied. As a result, a big chunk of the satellite communications system was suddenly unavailable. However, Skype and SMS worked fine. I think it is an example of how difficult it can be to be technically prepared for a disaster like the one in 2011. The knock-on effects can be very difficult to predict.

What are your memories of those early days after the disaster struck?

The day after the earthquake, my partner Yuka and I got a call from a Dutch journalist who asked if we could help him getting into and around in the Fukushima area. We agreed and we went off together. I also knew that Pieter’s family in law was in the region, so I the agreement was that I would go and check up on them as well. Thankfully they were alright, but the area was…it’s hard to describe.

The first thing that struck me in the Sendai area was that there was mud everywhere. Buildings and other man-made objects were scattered and sticking up through this big, brown canvas. Talking to the people there, you quickly found that the primary concerns were how they were going to get basic necessities like food and water, and secondly information. No-one know what was going on, and that was very clearly one of the biggest stress factors. Luckily, I had contact with Pieter who could update us from Tokyo on what was happening, especially in regards to the situation around Daiichi, which was our main concern.

One of the things that has stayed with me since that time was how calm and orderly things were, when considering the devastation and uncertainty. I still remember going past a petrol station and seeing a long line of people, patiently waiting in a long queue, waiting to fill their canisters with petrol. There was no electricity, so someone had rigged up a system using a power drill to pump the gas.

When the journalist and I made it back to Tokyo, they offered to fly me and my partner back to Holland, and we agreed to go, as there was so much uncertainty about the possible dangers. We were there for six weeks, and throughout that time I stayed in touch with Pieter and other people in Tokyo and the rest of Japan. It was in those days that we began talking about making Geiger counters and started making some of the first, simple designs.

What was your role within the Safecast setup at that time?

I don’t think you can put one cap on me that would describe all of that. To be honest, I think we were all a bit of everything in the early days. I was involved in many of the Safecast projects, including technical support, helping to come up with improvements, building boards, developing the API.

Rob helps a young student at the Mori Kids Summer Science Workshop, 2017

My background is in technical and computer-related fields, and those early days were especially interesting in regards to those areas. I would say that from a professional perspective, Safecast was – and is – like working on a project that can move at a pace unlike most others I’ve been involved in. In those early days, an added factor accelerating design and production speed was that we were addressing a direct, urgent need to get hardware in the hands of people so they could make radiation measurements in their areas.

What are the biggest drivers that allowed the project to move forward so fast?

The collaboration between people, open discussions within the group and the speed of iterations were three things that were very different from how most technical projects work. This is also part of what I would call the “Safecast Way.” It’s a different approach to how governments or other large institutions and organisations work, which are driven by other policies. 

What is one of the best/clearest memories you have of gathering radiation data?

One of my personal favourite moments from my time with Safecast was when I was working on setting up a data centre in Aizu prefecture, not long after the disaster.

Setting up the data centre in Aizu.

The idea was to teach people how to service PCs and data centres in an old school where there were several empty classrooms. While we were there, some of the other Safecast members came up and together we built around 30 of the first bGeigie Minis. There was a lot of testing just before we started to do the production itself and on-the-fly error shooting, but we made it. Those Geiger counters were some of the first that went to Japan Post. The company attached them to postal delivery motor bikes, which helped generate a lot more data throughout several regions in Japan. And currently Safecast has started to run a secondary round of measurements with Japan Post .

Building bGeigie Minis in Aizu.

Another favourite moment was when we were once in a bar in Tokyo after a workshop. We noticed that the radiation level was very high in some parts of the bar. We were wondering if the readings were correct, and suddenly the measurements went crazy, because the radiation levels were way too high. We couldn’t understand what was going on, so we started to run around the bar, making measurements, and it turned out that the guy who had been sitting next to us was the source of radiation. So, we approached him and asked if he knew that he was really radioactive, and he said that he did, because he was given a bowel check-up with radioactive solution. That level of deep conversation and/or sharing personal information doesn’t usually happen just like that. Especially not in Japan.

So, after six years, what keeps you volunteering for Safecast?

I think that the disaster in Fukushima affected everyone in Japan in some ways. For my partner and I, it helped us decide that we should move from where we had been living and set up in a place in the mountains around Nara. We wanted to build our own place, and today we live in a house that is completely off the grid. After some research, we decided to live as far away as possible from the nuclear power plants as we could get in Japan.

Driving on Nara dirt tracks requires a sturdy car.

When it comes to advice for other volunteers, I would say that my best piece of advice is to gather as much data as possible. Always have your measuring equipment with you. It doesn’t matter if you have made measurements somewhere before, it is always worth going back over the area to make sure that nothing has changed.

For me that data establishes a base level, which is like the background you need to make educated analysis of what changes may have occurred, if the levels should change.

It is also important to be aware that Safecast is in a sense a small part of a bigger movement. The way our environment, the places we live and the food we eat affect us are not understood, but I think that most people would agree that their effect is profound. To be able to say something about how those factors actually influence us as individuals and communities, it is imperative that we have access to reliable data. 

In this context, the idea of community is very important. Having a group of people who share goals, desires, worries, fears, etc, and who find ways of banding together in communities that can achieve common goals. I think that in many ways this is both what Safecast is – and what it helps other people create. My personal hope is that citizen science and free data help raise our consciousness of how important our surroundings are – both for our health and our long-term future.

I think that for Safecast, a lot of the success has to do with the founders. They are devoted to keep things going and to constantly engage with the volunteer base through workshops and collecting data.

About the Author

Marc Prosser

Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. He started volunteering for Safecast after writing articles about their work following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami - and because he believes that data and technology should be open and readily available.