Hackerspaces and Hacking Science

Photo credit: Sean Bonner, Safecast.org. Safecast Hackathon.

Photo credit: Sean Bonner, Safecast.org. Safecast Hackathon.

A little over two years ago the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan was crippled by a massive undersea earthquake and subsequent tsunami. As the accident unfolded there were questions about how much radiation was being released and how to determine what levels of radiation are safe. Initially, information was scarce, but one citizen science effort changed that. Safecast, a non-profit that seemed to spontaneously form following the accident, began collecting and publishing radiation readings, developing measurement tools, and analyzing data.

Safecast.org Logo

Photo credit: Safecast.org

Safecast is an interesting example of citizen science for a number of reasons. First, Safecast is participant-driven. The group originated as an email thread among friends inquiring after their loved ones. Soon the discussions turned to ways to aggregate and then collect and distribute data. The Safecast network quickly grew and its fascinating history is documented here and in this short documentary. Second, Safecast built tools to measure radiation readings when the tools were not available or adequate. Sean Bonner, Safecast co-founder, connected with contacts at the Tokyo Hackerspace to help with the design and development of devices. One of their devices, the bGeigie, allows measurements to be taken while driving. Or flying. Third, and relatedly, Safecast founders amassed a network of experts, including folks at the Tokyo Hackerspace, to obtain the expert knowledge they needed to ensure their project was successful. Fourth, they’re not content to collect and share data, but also analyze the data. The list of interesting and important work Safecast is doing goes on and includes visualizing of data and advocating and publishing under a CC0 license.

Hackers on a Plane logo

A visit to German and Australian hackerspaces ignited a new movement. See Farr’s account. Photo credit: hackerspaces.org

Safecast illustrates an emerging space for citizen science: hackerspaces. Hackerspaces, in their current form, have taken shape since 2007. Despite their recent development, more than a thousand hackerspaces (and counting) exist around the world. Hackerspaces are, according to the hackerspaces.org wiki, “community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects.” Many of these spaces provide access to expensive manufacturing tools, such as laser cutters and 3D printers, as well as access to expert knowledge, such as software and hardware development techniques. Others have begun to provide access to scientific equipment and scientific expert knowledge. The San Francisco-based Noisebridge hackerspace, for example, has a project to launch photographic equipment into the stratosphere, with a particular emphasis on the educational value of the project. A success or failure of the project doesn’t change the important engagement with science, they remind us. Ah-ha, education. BioCurious, in the Bay Area, is a hackerspace for biotech. The space is open to anyone from amateurs to entrepreneurs and includes an autoclave, PCR machines, microcentrifuges, vortexes, and common supplies including pipettes, glassware, tubes and more. Similarly Genspace, in New York, is a non-profit hackerspace that is “dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology.” Of course, there is also the work of Safecast through the Toyko Hackerspace.

Safecast’s ability to develop a network of expertise, manage collecting and sharing of massive amounts of data, and analyze the data illustrates that what is possible in hackerspaces goes far beyond tinkering. Scientific work is being done. Other spaces and projects, such as the Spacebridge at Noisebridge, show us that some are also engaged in important science education work. These hackerspaces are, among other things, educational spaces.

While biohacking appears to be somewhat more established than other kinds of science hacking, Safecast demonstrates that the possibility for extending scientific work in hackerspaces. Like many citizen science projects, the research these groups are undertaking is only part of what we might learn from them. Organization of individuals and resources, rapid mobilization and response, crowd-sourced funding and technical solutions, and strategies for educational engagement are all embedded within the work going on in hackerspaces around the world. Scientific hacking also throws into question of notions of expert, non-expert, and expertise. Safecast reminds us that the citizen in “citizen science” is something more akin to Sagan’s “citizen of the Cosmos” than a citizen of a nation.

If you are interested in the work going on in hackerspaces, check out the Hackerspaces.org Wiki and see what is going on in your community. There is a list of hackerspaces around the world on the wiki. If you are interested in supporting the efforts of Safecast, check out their page, and donate to them through their global giving project page.

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