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BIG THINKER
“Within a month of the disaster, we had all the experts needed to know what was going on”
Joi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab
Building networks that save and protect lives
Image: Dan Burn-Forti
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Building networks that save and protect lives

I-CIO editorial team — January 2012
In the first few weeks of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito was quick to mobilize an open innovation network focused on monitoring radiation levels and decontamination.

When the devastating March 2011 earthquake hit Japan, Joi Ito was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending a two-day interview for the role of director of MIT Media Lab, an opportunity he soon won.

But once it became apparent that the disaster had caused the Fukushima nuclear reactor to go into meltdown, he was concerned for his wife and friends in Japan and frustrated by the lack of public information about the levels of leaking radiation. Desperate to find out more about the true picture on the ground, Ito reached out to several experts within his broad global network of friends and contacts.

Within a day, he had put together a virtual team of dozens of people. Immediately, they started collating and analyzing what data they could collect about contamination levels, making it publicly available. “After about a week, we had a tremendous network of more than 150 volunteers,” explains Ito. “Within a month we had just about every kind of expert you would need in order to figure out what was going on.”

The next step for RDTN, as the network named itself (it’s now called Safecast), was to design an open-source blueprint for self-assembly Geiger counters — including one that could be mounted on an iPhone — to be used by volunteers on the ground in Japan. “We created a mobile sensor network, so we could drive around, collect data and then aggregate it,” says Ito. “And we made sure the equipment didn’t end up in the hands of people who weren’t going to share the data — because that was the important thing for us: that we shared the data.” This allowed the network to compile an online map of which areas were worst affected. The RDTN volunteers soon started working in towns and villages in the disaster zone to help spot where radioactive dust was collecting in individual houses and then decontaminate them.

“These guys were welcomed with open arms,” says Ito. “And since then they’ve started their own movement in Fukushima. They’ve said to us: ‘You’ve come from all over the world to help us learn about radiation and decontaminate. We now know how to do this, and now if this happens anywhere else in the world, we’re going to go and help, just like you’ve helped here.’”

Ito points out that this inspiring tale would not have been possible in pre-Internet days. “I had no specialized knowledge. But just by having that idea and having the Internet, by the time we were a month in we probably knew more about radiation and contamination than just about anyone who was speaking publicly. We were getting bashed by critics who were saying, ‘You don’t know this, you don’t know that.’

“But every time we got bashed, we’d go out and find somebody who knew about it through our network.”
First published
January 2012
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About: Joi Ito
Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, shares his insights on big data, “things that think,” ideas networks — and building a Geiger counter for your smartphone.

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