Hemmi & Graham: Hacker science versus closed science: building environmental monitoring infrastructure


Hacker science versus closed science: building environmental monitoring infrastructure, Akiko Hemmi, Ian Graham, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 17, Iss. 7, 2014

This paper describes how a self-organising constituency of individuals used low-cost components and drew on the hacker ethic to develop a radiation monitoring sensor network and standardised their methods to collect and distribute reliable environmental data.


The Fukushima Daiichi accident in March 2011 created a need by both public agencies and citizens for data on the levels of radionuclide contamination across Japan. In response to this need two systems emerged to collect radiation data using mobile sensors and publish it on the internet: KURAMA, developed by Kyoto University, and Safecast, developed by an ad hoc group of volunteers with their roots in the hacker community. Where KURAMA followed a conventional closed innovation model, Safecast used open-source components to generate freely available open data within an open community of heterogeneous expertise. By drawing on the epistemic foundations of the open source and hacker movements, Safecast developed the artefacts of the sensor network and the procedures for producing reliable and accepted measurements. Both approaches resulted in the rapid development of systems able to build radiation maps, but the open Safecast community was able to build their system at lower cost by enrolling volunteers, gaining crowdsourced donations, creating a global forum to discuss methods and using open-source components. The commitment to open data led Safecast to avoid interpreting the data that they collected which in turn reduced the risk of them being seen as an anti-nuclear activist organization. Safecast’s model of creating an open global community has been seen to work in Japan and both the widely disseminated lessons learned and the open-source components developed will provide a template for citizen-led responses to future environmental incidents elsewhere in the world.

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