An interesting and hard to understand aspect about Safecast is that there was never a point in time when we weren’t doing this, and then decided to start. In the way that a child doesn’t just throw a switch to become an adult, Safecast grew from purposed conversations among friends to full time organization gradually over a period of time. Let’s go back to the beginning.

March 11th, 2011 – a 9.0 earthquake hits Japan, triggering a massively destructive tsunami and crippling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. An email thread between Sean Bonner (Los Angeles), Joi Ito (Boston/Dubai/Tokyo) and Pieter Franken (Tokyo) began almost instantly. In the days following, as the discussion moved from confirming safety of friends and family, to ensuring their continued well being in part by getting geiger counters into their hands. Commercially available supplies dried up almost instantly and the discussion changed from buying to building. A plan to distribute devices was developing.

As each new challenge arose, someone from the networks of these three people was added who could speak about that particular issue with more authority. Joi was introduced to Dan Sythe (Maui), who ran International Medcom and produced high quality geiger counters. Sean knew people at the Tokyo Hackerspace and looped Akiba (Tokyo) into the discussion about building devices from scratch. bunnie hwang (Singapore) was added when the conversation turned to designing new devices. Ray Ozzie (Boston/Seattle) joined when the question of how to look at the data arose.

The following week Aaron Huslage(North Carolina) contacted Joi to introduce Marcelino Alvarez (Portland). Marcelino was one of the principals at a web/mobile shop in Portland called Uncorked Studios and they were working on site called RDTN.org. This site was to be primarily a map aggregating published radiation data and soliciting measurements from the public. Ideas and resources were shared and a clear synergy developed. As available data was mapped, missing data was obvious and getting devices into those areas seemed like the next obvious direction. Email threads turned into Skype calls and an always active chat room became the project headquarters.

Months earlier Joi Ito and Sean Bonner had begun working with Digital Garage in Japan on the production of their annual New Context Conference held in Tokyo. With radiation levels largely unknown and concern very high, the decision to reprogram the event was made. Rather than focusing on startups and new technologies, crisis response and recovery specific to the earthquake would be the topic. This event would become the first in person meeting of the whole team thus far, as well as the first introduction to many future Safecast volunteers.

On April 15th, just over 1 month to the day later, Dan, Pieter, Akiba, bunnie, Sean and Joi sat down in an office together for the first time. That weekend they were joined by Aaron Huslage, David Ewald (representing Uncorked in Portland, who would later design the the Safecast Logo), Ray Ozzie, Kei Uehara and Catherina Maracke from Keio University, and Tokyo Hackerspace members Kalin Kozhuharov and Robin Scheibler. Many hours were spent hashing out the direction of our next steps. This meeting was a turning point for many reasons. Ray Ozzie conceived the plan to strap a geiger counter to a car and somehow log measurements in motion. This would became the bGeigie which would be entirely designed and built at Tokyo Hackerspace the following week by Akiba, Robin, Pieter, Steve Christie and Mauricio Cordero. We decided that directionally we needed to focus on collecting data, and concluded that a new brand was needed to describe both the work we were doing now and might do in the future – in Japan and around the world. We were to be called Safecast – the name and related domains donated by Ray Ozzie.

With a successfully overfunded kickstarter campaign and a few private donations to help fund equipment were were in motion. The week of NCC in Tokyo solidified our efforts and gave us a mission. In the months following we would secure additional funding, recruit hundreds of volunteers and openly publish more measurements than any other organization to date.

About the Author

Sean Bonner


Sean Bonner is a co-founder and Global Director of Safecast. Based in Los Angeles, he's an Associate Researcher at the Center For Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab and a Shuttleworth Fellow.