In this installation of Hackerspace Happenings, I’m interviewing Akiba of Freaklabs about the efforts of Tokyo Hackerspace to help out in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident.
John Baichtal: How did Tokyo Hackerspace members react to the disaster?
Akiba: I don’t think anyone could really ignore what was going on. The mailing list was a fountain of information from people who were trying to debunk a lot of the sensationalism that was going on in the media. Luckily, we have members from scientific and technical backgrounds who would put a lot of the information into perspective. This was especially helpful for the nuclear meltdown.
A lot of the electronics guys went straight to work on putting together designs to scavenge power from the surroundings. One really innovative design is to use car batteries as phone chargers. There were a huge amount of cars that were wrecked by the tsunami and they were just lying around. They came up with the idea to salvage the batteries which have enough capacity to charge multiple phones and also run a wifi router.
We were also looking at different ways to detect radiation. A toxicologist in the hackerspace recommended dosimeters made out of x-ray film. He was also informing everyone about radiation including safe levels, standard thresholds that would require potassium iodide (KI), side effects of KI, how much seaweed would provide enough iodine for protection, etc. We were also investigating Kearny fallout meters as a poor man’s way to detect nuclear fallout.
The artists and writers in the hackerspace immediately started worrying about the displaced children and started up a project to bring them art supplies and activity/coloring books. Adults in disaster situations are so caught up in surviving the moment that children often get ignored. But for children, their homes are the center of their lives, and to have it torn from under them so immediately must be traumatic.
A Tokyo hackerspace member in Kamogawa got together with the locals to set up a refugee center at an unused, abandonded elementary school. The community in Kamogawa consists of many rice farmers so food would be plentiful. He organized a group of around 60 locals and immediately started cleaning up the school, setting up network access, soliciting donations of materials and money, and contacting government agencies.
And of course, for almost everything in the hackerspace, people were offering to donate time and money left and right. People would be researching topics on the mailing list, organizing fundraisers, volunteering at disaster relief groups, and calming each other down. I was surprised how fast everyone moved.
JB: Did the disaster affect any of the members personally?
A: We were all shaken up by the earthquake. After that, there were horrifying images all over the news about the tsunami leveling complete towns. Following that were continuous aftershocks, some of them quite powerful. It got to the point where you would start to feel phantom aftershocks.
A lot of us were gearing up to start assisting relief efforts and planning what needed to be done. This was my first experience with such a large scale disaster occurring so close to me. There were other members who assisted with Katrina and they were giving advice about what to expect and how events would unfold.
However around Sunday, there were explosions at the Fukushima power plant and radiation levels spiked on Monday and Tuesday. That basically shut down all of Tokyo and that’s when people started fleeing the city. All of this happening in such a short time span took its toll, not only on the members, but basically on all the residents of Tokyo. Riding the train to the hackerspace meeting, you could see the tension in the air. Jaws were clenched, there was complete silence on the train, and everyone was glued to their phone screens to check for updates.
The nuclear meltdown was bad enough, but the rolling blackouts added even more uncertainty. You couldn’t be sure if you could make it home at night because the trains could stop at anytime. We had to give ourselves a margin of 2-3 hours for any type of travel because the train schedules were so uncertain.
At the same time, staple items like bottled water and dry goods disappeared from shelves within days of the earthquake. You had to literally race out to check store shelves because you weren’t sure how long the food runs would last. With a gasoline shortage going on at the same time, it was questionable how long shelves could stay stocked. The convenience store underneath my apartment was almost stripped bare of food.
All of this happening at the same time will of course affect hackerspace members. There were a lot of tense posts on the mailing lists, pessimism, paranoia, but at the same time, there were a lot of positive posts about what could be done to take control of the situation.
The situation outside of the hackerspace was significantly worse in my opinion. The international media was talking up the events in Tokyo as a potential Chernobyl and many of us had to calm down people we knew. Many people I knew had bags packed and were ready to flee the city. I can’t say that I blame them, since many had families with small children. Risking a child’s life on an uncertain situation was a tall gamble.
After people got over the initial shock of everything, the radiation levels started going down, and more information was available, people started calming down and that’s when we were really able to start moving on a lot of projects. It’s still unfolding, but I think the rebuilding effort has already started and we’re planning to do as much as we can.
JB: Do you see hackerspaces as being ideally suited for helping out in disaster situations?
A: This is an interesting question. We had a discussion yesterday about hackerspaces and community resilience. Hackerspaces foster a maker culture where you’re encouraged to take apart, modify, and build things. In normal life, you can pretty much buy anything that you would need for everyday living. But in a disaster scenario, but this all breaks down in a disaster scenario. At that time, normal life ceases and you suddenly need a lot of things customized to a particular situation. Geiger counters were devices that used to be only purchased by people working with radioactive materials, paranoid militia, and weather geeks. Now they are becoming an everyday item in Tokyo.
What is needed in the quake area are power sources. One of our members who was up in Sendai when the quake and tsunami hit said that when he was at the shelter, people really just wanted communications. They wanted to let people know they were okay and to make sure others were okay. There were so many calls going around up there that many cell phones died within a day. Since there was no power, there was no way to charge them. In that situation, devices like a Minty Boost or phone chargers that could work off of scavenged power like car batteries, hand dynamos, or solar would have been extremely useful. It still is extremely useful because only a skeleton power grid has been constructed so far and in the tsunami areas there is still no power. Its assumed everyone evacuated but people are still there picking through rubble, looking for loved ones, and searching for survivors.
One of the points made by the discussion was that if a major disaster were to strike an area that had an active hackerspace, we believe that the members of the hackerspace would be the first people to pull the community together. Hackerspaces have tools and members with knowledge about how to make things from scratch and modify devices to suit their needs. If NYC Resistor existed when 9/11 occurred, I suspect that they would have had people and devices out there monitoring the situation immediately, and figuring out ways to address needs as the situation unfolded.
If a major environmental disaster were to hit San Francisco, I can imagine that Noisebridge would have weather balloons, monitoring stations, and software to disseminate all the information to the public within days.
One of the things that really struck me was how fast the other hackerspaces responded to our call for help and support. Within one day, we had offers coming out of hackerspaces in Oklahoma, Arizona, Detroit, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Germany, Singapore, and many other places. Our server went down the day after we posted the message due to traffic overload and the admins had to change the DNS and re-route the traffic just to log into it. At the moment, Ohmspace in Oklahoma is selling T-shirts and stickers with our lanterns to help us raise funds. Heatsync in Arizona is building out 300 lanterns. HackJam in Hong Kong is sending us a load of pre-built Minty Boosts. We have offers of building out another 1000 lanterns. And an informal hackerspace in Idaho spearheaded by Reuseum is helping us with fundraising, geiger counters, and lanterns.
So hackerspaces not only contribute to community resiliency by having the capability to make and modify things as needed. There is also a network of support from other hackerspaces that can respond almost immediately to a cry for help. Hackerspaces are a relatively new phenomenon in that they only started taking off around 2007 to 2008. I think this might be the first time where we are able to see what hackerspaces can do in a situation like this. I also think this provides valuable information for the future where hackerspaces can have items ready to assist in disaster response. In Tokyo Hackerspace, we’re putting together a plan to have designs specifically for disaster situations and that are ready to go immediately. They’ll all be OSHW/OSS and we’d like to start an effort to work with first responders like search and rescue organizations to train them on how to use the technology. That way, first responders can set up mobile charging stations, set up wide area portable intranets, and have a variety of tools at their disposal based on the situation.
JB: Tell me about how other hackerspaces made donations to Tokyo Hackerspace. Who helped, what did you get and what did you do with it?
A: This is still unfolding. A lot of the groups involved were mentioned above, but I’m sure I also left out some. The volume of emails and coordinating things is unbelievable and my brain capacity feel more limited than usual recently.
But anyways, the most immediate help we received were financial donations. We received around $2500 at the moment of this writing. ~$1000 was for donations for art supplies for children. $1500 was for lanterns. Approximately $1000 has been used so far for the lanterns to handle the mask charge, solar cells, parts, and shipping on 150 lanterns. We’ve also located a store of hand-dynamo phone chargers in Akihabara at a surplus shop so we’re using some of the donations to buy and send them up north.
We should have at least 500 additional lanterns coming in from abroad, many from hackerspaces. Many of these will be missing solar cells and mason jars so we’re saving the remaining donations to purchase whatever is needed to finish any incoming lanterns.
JB: Why was the Geiger counter project needed? Didn’t citizens of Tokyo have access to radiation data?
A: Within one day of the nuclear meltdown, independent geiger counters started appearing on Ustream. They were from geiger kits made by Strawberry Linux in Japan. At the time, those were the only source of radiation data available to the public. The government only released radiation data after strong demands by the residents, international media, and representatives of different countries. Before that, the government would only release radiation readings once per day and it would be disseminated to the public like a weather report. There were many complaints internationally that the government was not releasing enough information and so they started releasing radiation data approximately a week after the incident started.
As you can imagine, people in the hackerspace and probably the tech community in general, is skeptical of government data. We wanted independent corroboration that the government data was accurate. In fact, most countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency decided to collect their own data independent of the government. The public should have access to something similar. Since then, there have been numerous geiger counters that have popped up and the collective information seems to match the numbers we’re seeing from the government. That allows people to have more confidence that the government numbers are accurate and reliable.
A day after the Fukushima explosions, we ordered 10 geiger tubes off of eBay and requested quotes for geiger tubes from LND. By that time, there was already a run on geiger counters and most suppliers were sold out. About two days after the meltdown started, Reuseum contacted us saying he had some geiger counters if were interested. We immediately ordered two of them. They had to go and pick them up from their warehouse. After that, there was uncertainty in shipping because many airlines were halting flights to Narita due to increased levels of radiation. They had to check with FedEx and UPS to see who could get it to us the fastest. FedEx said they were waiting to see how things turned out and so they didn’t know when they would be able to ship out the package. So Reuseum contacted UPS and they were able to get the geiger counters to us in about four days.
JB: How did you get other hackerspace members involved?
A: At the Tuesday hackerspace meeting after the earthquake, things were very tense. We had to figure out what needed to be done and we just put together a list. After that, we jumped on whichever project we thought we could be most effective in. Once we had the list going, we got to work on it and afterwards figured out what the priorities were. But the important thing was that we had to take some kind of action. Sitting around was the worst thing we could do because then you just get stuck in all the armageddon news that was being floated around. By doing something, we were able to take control of our own situations, and get our minds out of the helpless and powerless mentality. Looking back, I’d say that it didn’t matter whether a decision on a project was right or wrong. The most important thing was that a decision was made and the project moved forward. We sifted through things after we got the momentum going.
Once we got the projects going, people would spontaneously jump on them. For the geiger project, we had multiple volunteers saying they’d donate time on the software side. A few days later, SEEED studio let us know there was a collaborative project for OSHW geiger counters. After that, Pachube informed us that they were upgrading the accounts of people making radiation-related feeds in Japan, allowing us to have a large amount of feeds and unlimited history. Things just started working out and evolved with the situation.
The long range WiFi project also had multiple volunteering time and effort. We had a workday and we configured routers in repeater mode and tested out high gain directional antennas. One of the members set up an Asterisk server so we could test out VoIP data. We had a conference call with one of the member’s wife who was a survivor of the Kobe earthquake. She said that it was a great effort but when she was in that situation, what mattered were immediate needs. Based on her feedback, we decided to postpone the long range WiFi project for the time being to focus on whatever we could get out immediately.
Lauren started the Tohoku Smiles project with the art supplies for kids. She’s heavily involved with the Democrats Abroad community in Asia and solicited a lot of donations from them for the supplies. This project is also on hold temporarily though to focus on immediate needs.
Chris Harrington started up a shelter in Kamogawa. He was part of our rice farm sensor network project and also started a farm out there. He’s an active member of the local community and they’ve been trying to decide what to do with an abandoned public school. There were not enough children around to justify keeping the school open. He was looking into turning it into an art gallery last year. After this situation happened, he discussed it with the community leaders and they went forward with converting it into a shelter. Since then, he’s had local groups from Tokyo and neighboring towns coming out to assist in cleaning the school and prepping it for refugees. Many evacuees from Fukushima will probably be residing there while the area is either cleaned up or the government can relocate them. As soon as he started the project up, there were many offers of support from the hackerspace and we informed him that we could drive a truck out there with supplies. We also sent him one of the geiger counters we received so they can scan incoming food donations to assure people the food they were eating was safe.
The lantern project took on a life of its own. We had lots of hackerspaces offering help to assemble them, sending us parts, and also sending us donations for it. We also have lots of volunteers in Tokyo to help us with the assembly.
So as you can see, all of the projects were independently started and basically originated spontaneously. They’re also evolving spontaneously. Eventually, more organization will be built in, but its beautiful to see something like this.
JB: Regarding the geiger counters, what were some technical obstacles that you overcame?
A: The first priority was to minimize the risk that I’d destroy the device. I tried to keep the modifications as non-invasive as possible to prevent this. This is always nerve racking.
I wasn’t sure at first if it was actually possible to digitize the signals. The first instinct was to probe the output to the VU meter but it felt like it would be too risky. We were talking about the possibility of probing the chirps from the speaker in the hackerspace so I decided to try out this method. I wasn’t sure if they were using a dual rail supply (+/- voltages) to power the speaker so I started probing the speaker signal. It turns out that it was a single ended supply from 0 to 8V. The voltage was slightly high but if I limited the current, it should be okay for the arduino. I wrote a quick sketch that would just loop until it detected a high on the input from the speaker. I was able to hear all the chirps so I decided to follow this approach.
The next obstacle was powering the device. I wanted to just solder wires on the battery terminals inside the box, but they were covered with some type of glue or epoxy. I didn’t want to try and remove it so I decided to solder wires on the batteries themselves. The batteries were alkaline so I didn’t want to risk outputting current from an external supply while the batteries were giving up charge too. I know that alkaline batteries don’t like being charged and I didn’t want to risk having the batteries malfunction. I insulated the batteries so they wouldn’t make contact with the battery terminals. I then used the copper tape we use to solder EL wire to solder wires on to the insulated part of the batteries. The batteries were just to help the copper tape make contact with the battery terminals. The power was supplied by the 3.3V regulator output on the Freakduino boards.
Finally, the last obstacle was getting data into Pachube. It was the first time interfacing to Pachube so I used their Processing interface tutorial. It was mostly painless except for some minor hiccups with some stupid coding errors.
JB: Why did you use the Freakduino and Chibi [which Akiba designed and sells] in the project, other than that I assume you have them lying around?
A: My first instinct was to use the Arduino Duemilanova I have on my bench. I was aware that by using my board, it would look like I was turning a bad situation into a marketing opportunity. When I did a preliminary scan of measurements, I found that the readings outside my apartment were about 2-3x the readings inside. I decided that I wanted to keep the geiger outside since that was where I thought it’d be the most effective in monitoring. It would also be able to see spikes in radiation. If you look at Geiger Maps and zoom in on the Tokyo area, you can see that there are very definite differences in measurements from geiger counters that are located indoors versus outdoors. You can check the sensor position by looking up the Pachube profile on those sensors. The government geiger counters and the ones from research labs were all located outdoors so I figured it was best for me to do the same.
Locating the geiger outdoors would mean that I’d have to run a cable from the inside of my apartment to the outside. The temperatures were cold at night and since the radioactivity was mostly from airborne particles, I didn’t want to have my door open all the time. Running a USB cable outside would mean that the door would have to be slightly ajar which I didn’t want to do. I tested out a wireless interface and got it to work quickly. I then put it outside with just a thin AC cable and saw that I was able to shut my balcony door. That was the reason I decided to use the Freakduino although to be honest, I don’t mind the publicity either. It’s kind of moot point, though. Shop sales were decimated by the nuclear event since many people are scared of anything coming out of Tokyo due to the nuclear meltdown.
Are you a hackerspace member with an event you’d like to publicize? Send it to email@example.com or tweet me at @johnbaichtal and I’ll post it. Also feel free to subscribe to my hackerspaces Twitter list. Hackerspace Happenings will run weekly Tuesdays, and the next one will come out April 5th.