Hacking for a safer world

May 2nd, 2011 by Sandra Barron

Tokyo HackerSpace describes itself as “an open community lab, studio, workbench, sewing circle, machine shop+” for people into “technology, building things, gardening, cooking, science, sewing, digital art, [and] gaming+.” In more concrete terms, THS is a rented house between Ebisu and Meguro where every surface is piled with soldering guns, circuit boards and packing foam. Even the window is obscured by a self-watering hanging garden made of repurposed bottles, containers and tubing. Part of a global movement, the group’s twenty-some members pay a monthly fee to keep the materials for their projects there. Until now, that has meant sewing supplies, electronics, tool boxes and a semi-functioning electronic piano. Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, sheets of solar panels and boxes of geiger counters and their components have taken a prominent place among the organized chaos of the HackerSpace.

Tokyo HackerSpace is currently working on three main projects to help the people affected by the disasters. The one that’s received the most attention is Safecast, a project with international backing designed to provide independent radiation readings throughout Fukushima prefecture, with plans to expand beyond there later. Pieter Franken, one of the project’s leaders at THS, said, “Ideally we’d have stationary monitors placed throughout the region, but there’s a worldwide shortage of geiger counters right now.” For now, the group has created mobile monitors they call “bento geigies,” for the way the parts pack neatly into their plastic box. International Medcom donated 10 geiger counters that cost hundreds of dollars each. The hackers have bundled them with GPS loggers, wifi devices and custom circuitry that outputs the data stream to a laptop to create roving broadcasting kits that can be mounted on cars to “take radiation readings the way Google street view takes photos,” Franken said. (While the circuitry seemed seamless, two of the hackers looked a little unsure about whether the nylon straps they’d attached to the kit would be long enough to attach it to the car, lent by a local dealer.) The data is going up on Safecast.org, the organization’s own site and also to pachube, an open-source map displaying all kinds of global environmental data.

“Safecast” is a combination of “safety” and “broadcast” and replaces the less-descriptive (and harder to pronounce) RDTN. The organization has participants in several countries. One prominent supporter is Joi Ito of Digital Garage, who was recently named head of MIT’s Media Lab. True to the DIY spirit of the project, they have started a Kickstarter page with a goal of raising $33,000 to buy equipment to make new geiger kits. “Eventually we want to have one in each of the 800 elementary school in the region,” Franken said.

And while everyone else was joking about getting geiger counter apps for their smartphones, Franken was actually building one out of a Russian geiger sensor and a hacked Mophie iPhone external battery case. He says it’s more of a proof of concept than a fully functional device now, but he’s gotten interest and is working on developing it further.

The other projects from THS may be a bit smaller scale, but they could have a more immediate impact. Emery Premeaux is spearheading two projects that use solar panels: small lanterns and cell phone chargers. “We decided to try to focus on the people who have been moved out of shelters but still don’t have reliable electricity,” Premeaux said. Each lantern is a mason jar with a solar panel on top of the lid and a bulb inside. THS has made 50 of these “Kimono Lanterns” so far, and their goal is to make 250. They have put the diagrams for their circuit boards online so groups elsewhere can make them, too. They’re expecting at least another 100 from a hacker space in Arizona. With just one LED each, they’re probably not bright enough to read by, but Premeaux says, “They’re just meant to give people in homes with no power a little sense of warmth and safety.”

The other project is solar cell phone chargers. Konarka donated 500 solar mats about the size of placemats. Each one can charge one cell phone at a time. Four hours of charging should power a smart phone about half way and fully charge a simpler keitai.

They are still planning the delivery of the handmade hacks, hoping to identify needs as they go by getting unofficial leads from local governments and shelters about where people are who need help. They are also starting to work on a networked database accessible from PCs or cellphones for detailed, real-time tracking of what aid had been delivered where. “We have a lot of projects in mind for the future,” Premaux said. “We hope to learn from this and set them up before the next disaster.”

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