In 2011 I was living with my family in Los Angeles. We lived in a little grey 2 bedroom 1 bath house once occupied by Henry Rollins, an author & musician whose punk rock/DIY ethics & integrity had already played a formative role in my life. In early March I would celebrate my son’s first birthday, and a few days later a triple disaster on the opposite side of the planet would completely change the course of my life. Over the following weeks and months I’d find myself staying up 24 hours at a time coordinating with people in every timezone imaginable trying to find information and answers for friends and family directly impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown playing out in Fukushima. The government systems had failed, and we thought we could help. Be it art or activism, if you know me you know I’ve spent most of my life pushing against the boundaries of established norms, refusing to just accept the status quo. I would make several trips to Japan to work with others like me, taking our first steps towards a solution to a problem much larger than most of us realized at the time. Eventually the back and forth would become too much, and in 2017 as a family we decided to upend our lives and move around the world so as to better focus on the project that had become Safecast. As we approach the 9 year anniversary, I’m writing from Tokyo to ask you to join me.
We began Safecast with a push towards transparency, quickly growing to address the larger issues of trust and openness and forced a reassessment of what we all should expect from environmental monitoring projects. In a world where devices can be bricked anytime a company pivots, where EPA datasets and research disappear overnight, where a single politician can undo decades of work out of spite or where government regulations are written to augment an industry’s financial goals rather than the health of the people or the protection of our environment we stood up and said not anymore. If we can’t trust the companies and governments to look out for us, we’ll do it ourselves without them. We put all of our data into the public domain to ensure everyone can use it, and no one can ever delete it. My son will be able to show his grandchildren this data and it will be just as useful then as it is now. All of the devices we designed are open and futureproof, ensuring they will work as intended for as long as someone feels like repairing them. In a few short years this community built the largest open radiation dataset ever collected, larger than the combined datasets published by every government today. This information reshaped evacuation zones and helped people make life changing decisions. We’ve built a real time monitoring network that lets residents know about changes in their environments in minutes. From Tokyo I was able to see how smoke from brush fires was directly impacting my friends back in Los Angeles because of Safecast air sensors that were up and running. This system was unimaginable a few years earlier when I was in LA worrying about friends in Japan and week or month old data was the best anyone could find. Our global volunteer team has helped us to build a comprehensive map allowing people to see measurements on the streets in front of their houses, all over the world. In addition to the tools and deployments we’ve developed curriculum, lesson plans and tutorials to help people understand how this works, and do it for themselves without relying on us. In a world where companies are trying to find new ways to lock people into their ecosystems, we’ve actively worked to make sure these systems can function even without us.
In the nonprofit world it’s commonplace to spend half your time fundraising in order to spend the other half doing the work. At Safecast we focus the majority of our time and energy on the work and the funding has come through recognition of our results. We’ve been lucky to have the incredible support of Reid Hoffman, Shuttleworth Foundation, Knight Foundation and others like them with courage, vision and the ability to see the long term picture. Their wonderful donations have covered the majority of our bills year over year. We’ve been able to have the kind of tangible, global, long term impact that we have precisely because we get to spend our time working doing the work without fundraising as a distraction. But that also creates a dependency where our ongoing work relies on a single person or a single donation, which isn’t healthy. We started this project with a recognition that “the way things work” wasn’t working and a belief that we could find a new way, and I think we’ve done that. Similarly, we think the way that nonprofits are expected to survive is broken, and believe there has to be a better way. “That’s the way it’s always been done” is a terrible reason to keep doing something, especially when it’s obviously not working. We reimagined what environmental monitoring could be, and now we are reimagining how to fund it. Safecast is not flashy. We are not a trendy startup looking for a quick exit, we’re not selling data out the back door to jack up our valuation. We aren’t looking for a hockey stick increase in market share. We are a passionate global community committed to a reliable solution that can be counted on today, tomorrow, and in the years to come. While we deeply appreciate the funders who have helped us get this far, if we want to be truly robust our funding needs to come from our community. Rather than relying on one person donating $100k, I want 100 people to donate $1k. A few hundred volunteers with geiger counters built the largest radiation dataset ever amassed while politicians sat around talking about why they couldn’t do it. That’s the proof that a few committed people can do the work that everyone else will benefit from. That’s what I’ve spent the last 9 years of my life focused on. Safecast is deploying sensor networks and building datasets that will benefit us all for generations–we didn’t ask permission or get anyone’s approval to do this, it’s just what we do.
My 45th birthday is at the end of this month. For my birthday I’m hoping to find 100 people to commit to giving $100 a month to Safecast for 1 year. These donations are tax deductible. That money will go a long way towards paying for salaries, servers and sensors. But more importantly, it will prove that a few people who care can positively impact the world. I hope you’ll join me.