Joi Ito: After A Disaster, How Can Everyday Citizens Gather Critical Data? After a massive earthquake struck Japan in 2011, MIT's Joi Ito assembled a ragtag team of hackers and eager citizens to help assess the damage after the government came up short.
NPR logo

Joi Ito: After A Disaster, How Can Everyday Citizens Gather Critical Data?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/551031546/554282515" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Joi Ito: After A Disaster, How Can Everyday Citizens Gather Critical Data?

Joi Ito: After A Disaster, How Can Everyday Citizens Gather Critical Data?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/551031546/554282515" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Citizen Science. So back in March 2011, Joi Ito had traveled from his home in Japan to Boston.

JOI ITO: So I'm actually interviewing for my job at the Media Lab.

RAZ: That would be the Media Lab at MIT, where Joi now works as the director.

ITO: And I've gone to the hotel and kind of fallen asleep. And I'm trying to remember exactly what time but it's sometime in the middle of the night in Boston the earthquake happens in Japan. So I wake up to email and news...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN WILLIAMS: On our broadcast tonight, the big one hits Japan.

ITO: ...All going on and on about the earthquake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: One of the largest ever measured. And it triggers a massive tsunami all the way to the U.S.

ITO: I can't reach my wife on the phone because the phone system's out. I finally get through via Skype. She's OK. I have friends in the Tohoku region. I find out they're safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Japan declares a state of emergency at a nuclear plant as radiation levels surge.

ITO: The reactor is billowing smoke and there's an explosion. And there's a cloud sort of headed roughly towards Tokyo. And our house is sort of part way from Fukushima to Tokyo, in Chiba. So I have my family asking me what they should do.

RAZ: Joi wanted to make sure that they would stay safe as that radiation cloud spread. And because he was thousands of miles away at the time in Boston, he did the only thing he thought could actually help. He turned to Twitter.

ITO: You know, you had people tweeting out questions. You had people tweeting out answers.

RAZ: And a bunch of them started a group chat on Skype to streamline everything they knew about what was going on in Japan and what they could do to help.

ITO: We were starting to talk about what else we would like to know and who might know how to do that. And so it was kind of this virtual team building. And, you know, I was translating Japanese press conferences and trying to correct the U.S. and foreign media when they got a story wrong. And so at the beginning, we don't know the difference between gamma rays and alpha rays and beta rays. And so we were also trying to find people who understand this stuff. And through friends of friends and friends or friends, we start to find the experts and bring them into our community.

RAZ: And that community, it ended up turning into a website called Safecast because, at the time, the Japanese government just wasn't giving people enough information.

ITO: One of the key things that I think everybody wanted to know was, where is the radiation? You can't see it, right? And the Japanese had drawn these concentric rings - the government - that sort of show the ground zero of this thing in these circles. And anyone who knew anything about anything knew that the radiation would travel with the wind and it would change based on rain and humidity. And these maps that they were drawing, where they were talking about the exclusion zones and how they were going to evacuate people, didn't have any of those weather models informing them. And most people didn't have access to Geiger counters. They're completely sold out. So we designed and built our own.

RAZ: How'd you do it?

ITO: Well, we collected the different types of hackers that we needed - hardware hackers, sensor hackers and people in hacker spaces that were willing to assemble them - and collected information and parts from the Internet.

RAZ: How did you even know how to start making this stuff, though?

ITO: A lot of this was about networking. So one of the guys who reverse engineered the X-Box at MIT grad, he understood the manufacturing process. Another kid, Peter (ph), understood how to do the high-energy stuff. And then we happened to run into the guy who made Geiger counters to instrument Three Mile Island after their disaster.

RAZ: My gosh.

ITO: And as a group, they were able to put it together.

RAZ: And those Geiger counters were used by ordinary citizens who would just walk around their neighborhoods and measure the radiation and then report what they found to Safecast.

ITO: Years later, you know, our data's good. People trust us. The governments all over the world now invite our citizen scientists to their meetings. We've got, you know, peer-reviewed papers. And finally, the Japanese government even is happy now because we have an annual report that sort of looks into the Japanese government response. And, you know, we criticize what's bad but we also acknowledge what they've done well. And so we've become sort of the trusted third party in Japan on both the recovery and the current situation.

RAZ: So a bunch of, I guess, amateurs pulled this off?

ITO: Yes. I think, you know, we were much more amateur at the beginning. And I think a lot of the amateurs became experts. But we also recruited a lot of the experts. Some of them were the naysayers. And we said, well, just join us. Help us. Work with us. So over time, more and more of the experts joined this movement. But at the beginning, we absolutely knew nothing. All we had was this kind of desire to figure it out.

RAZ: On the show today, we're going to explore ideas about Citizen Science and the power of human curiosity because with more access to data and information than ever before, a lot of the science that's going on today is starting from the bottom up. And it turns out, some amazing things can happen when everyone from academics to amateurs comes together in the name of science. We'll hear more from Joi Ito later in the show, but right now, a story about a mom who took on the world of science to save her kids.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.