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New Expert Eyes Over Fukushima: Open Source Responses to the Nuclear Crisis in Japan

Luis Felipe Rosado Murillo
University of California, Los Angeles

The paper has been removed at the request of the author, most likely in preparation for publication, but you may contact the author for a preprint or reference to the published article.


In this paper I explore the responses of the Open Source community to the Fukushima crisis by describing the development of collaborative technologies to measure radioactive contamination across Japan. This paper is offered as a contribution to studies of public participation in science and technology by describing the nature of sociotechnical ties among hardware engineers, software developers, businesses, educational institutions, venture capitalists, and citizen scientists. Examples of collaborative mapping and monitoring projects in Japan include: “Safecast” (whose volunteers drive across Japan to map and measure radiation levels) and “Open Geiger Project” (responsible for the Open Source design of an affordable Geiger Counter). What these projects have in common is the usage of shared Open Source platforms for fast prototyping of low-cost digital devices and the commitment to information openness. Based on ethnographic data from participant observation at Tokyo Hackerspace and trajectory interviews with expert and non-expert volunteers of Safecast, this paper specifically addresses emergent forms of technoscientific expertise – which are not confined or legitimized by established institutions, but remotely distributed and organized around networks of various field specialists.

In respect to the question of who gets to speak the truth about the risk of radiation exposure, this paper addresses the issue of responsibility in face of the controversy over governmental crisis management, reliability, and availability of radiation data. Recent contributions from Science and Technology Studies (STS) helped to re-position the issue of environmental and technological crisis within the frame of inherent and relational risk of technoscientific platforms (Beck 1992; Lash, Szerszinsky and Wynne 1996), moral education of experts and non-experts in scientific training (Gusterson 1996), and the reconfiguration of inter-relations between life, technology, private interests, and State power in respect to shifting notions of life and governance of crisis (Rabinow 1996; Fortrum 2001; Petryna 2002). Describing relations of collaborative work and support, I discuss the emergence of distributed expertise which can be identified in the formation of Open Source projects for crisis relief. For the analysis of ethnographic data, I follow the orientation of STS in exploring associations and co-constitutive relations between human and non-human agents, focusing specifically on the study of a particular collective history through the construction of instruments of radiation measurement (Traweek 1988; Hess 1995). Both Tokyo Hackerspace – as an independent laboratory – and Safecast – as a spin-off project – represent instances of hacking as a form of bricolage (Lévi-Strauss 1969; Hess 1995) for they are situated between modes of reasoning and cultural practices in Open Source development, start-up businesses, and academia. Following Traweek’s (1988) study of group histories through the development history of its instruments of knowledge, I describe the development process of Safecast’s instruments as bricoleur’s artifacts in their rapid prototyping, concurrent revisions, its integration of code, flexible Open Source platforms, and distributed knowledge.

The Fukushima crisis has been an object of a wide range of citizen, academic, and journalist accounts, forming a public sphere of multiple perspectives in confront, irreducible to a unique perspective. From within this virtual space of discursive dispute, Safecast carved its space as another citizen group, although mostly silent, a technically expressive collective agent. Its volunteer work, broadly conceived, consisted not in feeding the debate on “natural versus anthropogenic” classifications of the disaster, but in highlighting and establishing the distinction between information and evaluation, drawing a symbolic division between what the project is meant for and what is the role of scientific experts.

As a concluding argument, I suggest that expertise and responsibility are interpretative keys for understanding possibilities and impossibilities of collaboration and coordination in the context of Open Source responses to the Fukushima disaster. They are fundamental in providing a window into organizational structures of public projects, offering an vantage point for the description of constitutive ties of collaborative spaces, such as Tokyo Hackerspace, and Open Data projects, such as Safecast. Efficacy of symbolic boundaries dividing specialists in face of other specialists, as well as the lay public in relation to experts is anchored in perceived and enacted forms of technoscientific expertise and responsibility. Alongside with highly valued project of advancing technology, responsibility becomes a central concern and an open question in the case of Safecast and Tokyo Hackerspace as they champion openness, at once, as an ethical point of departure, a projected outcome, and a technical practice for humanitarian reasons.

Luis Felipe R. Murillo is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at University of California, Los Angeles. He has done ethnographic research in Japan, Brazil, and the United States at collaborative spaces for socialization of computer experts – self-identified or identified by peers as ethical computer hackers. His research work is focused on the cultivation of technical skills and moral orientations, ranging from Free Software development and hardware design to hacker activism and technical “evangelism”.

  1. Kath Weston permalink

    Thinking about hacking and crowdsourcing as a form of bricolage, rather than simply a digitally sophisticated means of democratizing safety culture when applied to radiation detection, is a really fresh way to look at these initiatives in Japan. In addition to openness and responsibility, what about affordability? Openness is often the headliner when STS looks at digital media, perhaps because it figures so prominently in the discourse of hackers themselves (thinking here of Fred Turner’s work on cyberculture and digital utopianism). But some of the people who have been drawn to these projects post-Fukushima Daiichi mention affordability as a reason to participate. (Why buy a Geiger counter out of the box if you can turn your phone into one?) Not all the reasons a bricoleur has for working with “found” artifacts necessarily relate to morally inflected issues like responsibility or the democratization of technology and art. Big question: Is there a difference between the bricolage that characterizes the distributed expertise that these projects generate, and the bricolage that has come to characterize the worked-over, patched-together source code of a top-down product like Microsoft Word?

  2. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    Luis — this is an interesting paper, and I appreciate your engagement with a wide range of theorists to think about open source, STS and disasters.

    I would like to hear more from you on the question of responsibility. You argue that openness and responsibility are the two analytics you want to use. The language of safecast is that they are apolitical, and want to make data accessible (cf. Yasushito Abe’s paper in session 3), but it can be sometimes unclear who the stakeholders are. Through your fieldwork, did you get a sense of how open source projects tackled the question of responsibility?

  3. unixj4zz permalink

    @Nicolas Sternsdorff and @Kath Weston: I am really grateful for your insightful comments and questions. Let me comment on each one of them.

    In respect to affordability & bricolage: I tried to approach them through interactions with open source hardware enthusiasts (at meetings and hands-on workshops). My entry point was to focus on how expertise is cultivated (and enacted in public demonstrations of skill and knowledge) and how certain tools become ‘affordable’ to expert-volunteers (vis-a-vis non-expert volunteers). What is interesting in this regard is that — besides mapping and ‘safecast-driving’ around Japan performed by non-experts — there is not much of a development community around the Safecast monitoring devices, but a small, tightly-knit group of academics and expert technicians — which I described in the graphs (of geiger counters, institutions, and individual collaborators).

    To address Kath’s question regarding bricolage directly: the messy realities of development are similar, but key differences reside in the trajectory of the actors who are involved, tools employed, and forms of collaboration, coordination, and integration of remote/distributed work. Beyond a simplistic (and widely popular) distinction between ‘community/baazar’ /versus/ ‘cathedral/centralized’ development models, there are important legal, political, and technical differences. In other words, by looking at life histories and development histories as they come together in technical artifacts, collective formations, and development orientations, we might be able to come closer to a response to the question: certain network arrangements (technical, political, institutional, etc.) will create conditions of possibility for certain manifestations of bricolage.

    In regards to the notion of responsibility: this is something I am currently working on and trying to develop further. I still have a lot of work to do. The notion of ‘trust’ came up quite often during fieldwork, but it assumed different dimensions in the context of the Fukushima crisis. It implicated a notion of responsibility for the crisis, which was partially dislocated from the government (due to lack of trust) and imputed onto volunteer computer technicians and hardware engineers. By taking up the task of conducting radiation measurement independently, Safecast inadvertedly also shifted the responsibility to itself for saying the truth about exposure risks. The project struggled with the problem of building trust and came up with a very interesting position in the context of pro and anti-nuclear debate, imputing responsibility of interpreting the data to specialists.

    Historically, the notion of responsibility in Free Software – decomposed in two terms: imputability as legal responsibility and accountability as moral responsibility — was, at once, avoided and made implicit from the get-go. One of the most influential licenses in the Free Software context is the GNU General Public License, which states: “This [piece of software] is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.”. Despite the fact that Free Software is legally instituted with no liability, it is widely known in the literature how important moral responsibility is in creating and fostering a development community around Free and Open Source software projects.

  4. Scott Knowles permalink

    Hi Luis–I’m going to read the full paper and will look forward to further discussion at Berkeley. I think your expertise/responsibility nexus will be a really useful one for provoking conversation. Let me ask you, what have you found in terms of ways that open source radiation monitoring may be destabilizing traditional professional authority and boundaries? That is, are you finding any rearrangements, or even crises, WITHIN engineering, public health, physics, or other well-established expert communities vis-a-vis the emergence of open source technologies? I ask because disaster has a history of not only destabilizing citizen/expert relations, but also redrawing professional boundaries as well.

    • Dear Scott: thank you so much for your question.

      At this stage of my ongoing research, I do not think I can make this claim based on my fieldwork data. What I think would be possible to say with confidence is that there is a lot of tension and dispute over limits as well as porosity of (symbolic) borders between expert and non-expert domains of practice in science and engineering. However, not only dispute, but border-crossing is taking place.

      The evidence I have found during fieldwork is that established nuclear engineers and nuclear scientists came to learn about Open Source software and hardware and — as they say — ‘wrap their heads around the concept’.

      It is safe to say that it is a 2-way venue: after 3.11, computer technicians and engineers (with strong science backgrounds) cultivated the skills in nuclear radiation measurement, as well as nuclear engineers came to learn about the potentialities and development practices of Open Source communities. From the encounter of nuclear industry businesses, nuclear physicists, computer scientists, Internet entrepreneurs, and Open Source developers a few devices were brought to market, a large public database of radiation data was created, and software code was written and shared among projects in Japan and abroad. My tentative argument (yet to be fully developed…) is that the novelty lies in this encounter and the entanglement of life-histories, development history of radiation measurement tools, technopolitical sensibilities, and technoscientific forms of expertise.

  5. Laura Beltz Imaoka permalink

    I particularly enjoyed reading both yours and Yasuhito’s articles on Safecast and am looking forward to this panel to hear more about it. While much of your discussion focuses on rendering the boundaries of experts and non-experts in terms of positioning these ethical hackers against government officials and scientists, isn’t it also important to think through their own techno-elitism positioned against their non-technoscientific consumers of their information? I am also hoping to hear more about how what you call a “mostly silent, a technically expressive collective agent,” carves out another space in the online public sphere. Jen Schneider also provides an idea of a “third space” when discussing the blogs of the UCS and NEI, which I think provides an interesting parallel to further discuss.

    • Dear Laura: I am looking forward to our discussion during the workshop!

      Regarding ‘techno-elitism’, I certainly think there is a need and a lot of room to explore it more. I am grateful for the fact that you pointed it out. As I experienced how much of a struggle it is to overcome the barrier of ‘inter-incompreehension’ established between those who were cultivated in technical and scientific communities and those who were not, I have come to think a lot about the tension between democratization and exclusivism.

      In respect to Safecast as a ‘mostly silent, but technically expressive collective agent’, it was an odd selection of words… I blame myself as much as my ESL skills for it! What I wanted to say is simple: in comparison to vocal anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear agents, Safecast and THS hackers were not making official pronounciations and positioning themselves in respect to heated debates and controversies around 3.11 (the range of the ‘exclusion zone’ comes to mind).

      For an attentive discussion and analysis of the ‘online public sphere’, the work of Yasuhito is much better and richer reference than mine. I opted to focus my analysis more on hands-on workshops and face-to-face meetings at Safecast and Tokyo Hackerspace, than on their web presence, even though I followed their discussions online as much as offline.

  6. ## Response: Murillo, “New Expert Eyes Over Fukushima”

    Luis, your paper is rich in empirical material and in analytical ideas. You have definitely identified a site where a number of interesting and important things are happening with respect to questions of technical knowledge, political and epistemic authority, trust and”responsibility,” and relations among the public, the government, and experts of various stripes. I enjoyed your portrayal of this site through your participant observation and your narrative skills. You have successfully laid the groundwork for expanding your analysis in any number of directions. I am definitely looking forward to seeing which of these directions, questions, and ideas that you focus on and flesh out as you move forward with this important work. In the meantime, you have provided plenty of fodder for discussion in the fora of this workshop, and already the commenters above have further stoked that discussion with perceptive questions.

    Like them, I was also wondering about “responsibility” and the various things for which different groups might assume responsibility for — the accident itself, the validity of data, the “correctness” of data interpretation, etc. — so I am glad that you have begun to elaborate on that.

    Okay, I am one of the assigned readers for your paper, so I’m going to try to provoke responses and push you a bit with a bunch of questions and critiques to follow. Your paper is so rich that I can only address a few of its more intriguing points.

    In my response to Yasuhito’s paper I noted that you and he both raise a fundamental question about Safecast and endeavors like it, which is to what degree (if at all) it represents a new way of producing, organizing, and distributing knowledge or articulating a certain kind of political power. At the beginning of your paper, you explicitly say that it is new; you describe “emergent forms of technoscientific expertise which are not confined or legitimized by particular institutions, but remotely distributed and organized around networks of various specialists and influential actors.” And you suggest that Safecast is “a new form of political action which is not only mediated but actively exercised through technical means.” However, I must confess that I am not convinced that it is particularly new in either of these respects. Is it really so different, for example, from any other social or collective endeavor that entails a variety of forms of knowledge and the asynchronous cooperation of multiple people in multiple locations?

    More to the point, what difference does it make whether it is new or not? Even if it is not particularly new, can’t it still be important and interesting for all the reasons that you describe so well in your paper? My own feeling is that attaching importance to the novelty of Safecast increases the burden upon you to spend ink and persuasive resources building a cogent argument that it represents some kind of transformative innovation different from what came before, and I think that actually distracts from your deeper and far more interesting analysis of those questions of trust and expertise and authority at the heart of your paper. But I am ready to be convinced otherwise if you do want to make that argument.

    Another fascinating issue at the heart of your paper is the question of political commitments, especially implied commitments. As I just noted, you describe Safecast as “a new form of political action” toward the beginning of your paper. Yet, your actors expressly deny political commitments (and we see this in Yasuhito’s paper, as well). As you show, the volunteers explicitly aim for political neutrality and the generation and open distribution of putatively objective, technically accurate, policy-agnostic data. So would you argue that the objectives of their “political action” is “hacking the bureaucracies” in order to promote the ideals of Open Data? But you also note, quite perceptively, that “Safecast’s Other is the official government response to the nuclear crisis.” Doesn’t that mean that they are implicitly positioned in opposition to the government and its policies and rhetoric, which have been largely supportive, to one degree or another, of the nuclear industry?

    Clearly, the Safecast volunteers’ notion of objective data free of politics, built upon the problematic assumption of a clear distinction between the production of data and its interpretation, is a naïvely idealized one, and I think you are pulling your punches a bit and not explicitly challenging that as much as you could. Actually, I am wondering if you pressed any of the volunteers on their professed neutrality. Surely, whatever they strive for in their capacities as project volunteers, as individuals they have their own convictions about the ethics and risks of nuclear power. Did any of them discuss this with you?

    At any rate, your narrative makes it very clear that the volunteers understand that public trust in their epistemic authority is absolutely dependent upon a perception of neutrality and objectivity, as well as technical competence, transparency, and a number of other qualities. It is fascinating that they recognized so clearly that attempting to usurp the standing of certain established experts to interpret their data would jeopardize that trust, thus the necessity of boundary work between the data’s production and its interpretation. Is it fair to say, then, that perhaps a core objective of their “political action” is securing public trust and authoritative capital (without any particular policy end)?

    Finally, I want to ask about one other political commitment that underlies your paper. That is, of course, your own “personal commitment to Open Data in general.” I wonder if you can elaborate on this commitment and your own convictions about the value of Open Data (as well as, presumably, open source software and hardware). I think that more explicit reflexivity regarding your own position with regard to this (as well as, perhaps, the nuclear issue) would strengthen and enrich your narrative.

    That said, it is already both strong and rich, filled with interesting details and diverse ideas about a range of important questions. Obviously, in such a short paper you are only able to scratch the surface, but I think I can safely speak for the other workshoppers in saying that you have definitely piqued our interest, and we are looking forward to further discussion and development of your work, especially as it connects fruitfully on so many points with other papers in this workshop.

  7. Dear Tyson: I will try my best to address your questions here and during the workshop. I am really grateful for your attentive reading and thoughtful suggestions. I agree with you on several grounds, and will incorporate your suggestions.

    In respect to the argument of novelty of Safecast and its participation in collaborative mapping: what I wanted to describe as a new event is the participation of unlikely volunteers in the context of crisis (ethical computer hackers + Open Source projects). Beyond this basic point, I also tried to demonstrate that Safecast articulates Open Source software, hardware, and data, which is a new development in the context of computing and Free Software at large. This articulation is very interesting because it challenges other traditional institutions and groups on several grounds (for instance, the Kurama project of National Instruments and Kyoto University, which created a “closed source” version of Safecast to measure radiation in Fukushima with mobile sensors). On the other side of the token — and this is another aspect that I tried to suggest –, strong ties with more established universities, companies, and formal institutions, created the conditions of possibility for Safecast.

    In respect to political commitments: you will find people who are pro-nuclear energy and people who are against nuclear energy within Safecast and Tokyo Hackerspace. I had discussions with members, asked about their personal position in interviews, and witnessed debates and arguments on and offline. The important point is that their personal positions are not expressed publicly, but it does not mean they are apolitical actors. A shared and widespread sentiment is that the government is inefficient and incapable of handling the situation, so efforts to address the situation should not be concentrated in policy-making efforts and other intervention on the governmental level.

    The question of politics is a very central issue that I have been struggling with since I started my research project. One of the questions I pursued, but failed to articulate clearly was: what kind of political action is it? Given the fact that it is not expressed in confrontational language practices and imagery, it is not making usage of traditional political venues (massive demonstrations in Tokyo) or practices of mobilization (interpellation, call for action, manifestos), how is it positioned in respect other political practices and projects in Japan post-3.11?

    My articulation of the problem needs revision (as you pointed out) to convey that the political exercise in the case at hand is organized and carried out as a public database, software code, and (replicable) Geiger counters. Even if there is no clear positioning in respect to the larger debate in the public sphere, there is a silent political force being orchestrated and exercised through the development of Open Source tools and public-domain databases to intervene in the nuclear crisis. Another way to put this: it is not that political disputes of other order are encoded in the tools, as a form of sub-politics; it is the case, I would like to tentatively suggest, that open tools per se are the political means and goals, which point to a (novel) way to approach political issues and environmental problems.

    Despite my personal commitment to Free Software, I try my very, very best to keep my convictions from informing and foreclosing my potential findings and conclusions. I do not assume openness and its potential/desired benefits to be a given point of departure, but a collective projection, an expectation/utopia, an organizing principle, and a vector of technical work. Because I do not take openness for granted, I have come to analytically think of Open Source projects in terms of degrees of openness, and their constant struggle to create, advance, and foster openness on different levels, despite legal guarantees of openness that are instituted via FOSS licensing of software, data, and/or hardware schematics and design files.

    Looking forward to our discussions! I am immensely grateful for your comments.

    • Luis, thank you for your thoughtful answers! Unfortunately I probably won’t be able to patch in during your session tomorrow, but Juraku-san has kindly agreed to read my questions and comments to help stoke discussion. I hope it will be productive for you!

  8. This is a very nice paper and I share the enthousiasm of the above comments. I’m looking forward the discussion with you and Yasuhito about Safecast.

    It would be nice if you could develop on the technophile utopia of these hackers. Their moto of Open-Free-Transparent sounds like Assange’s rhetoric, but it seems that the 3.11 clashes differently for them since they tend to keep “faith” in experts (see my comments to Cisterna’s paper).

    Some parts of your paper are quite technical and uneasy for an internet ignorant like me! I would need some oral footnotes! Yoroshiku!

    In Fukushima, I wonder if you had also an occasion to meet with 市民放射線測定所の岩田渉さん?

    • Dear Professor Jobin: Thanks a lot for your comments! Feel free to ask me about the technical details and I will be happy to translate or explain to the best of my knowledge.

      Hacker love and obsession with machines in the case of Safecast is counterbalanced with a very strong commitment for the public good. Most of the active volunteers worked for the project at night after long days of work. Commitment is the right word to portrait the relationship between core volunteers of the project. There is certainly a constant thread linking openness as a value among hackers, cyperpunks, and cryptoanarchists which were drawn to work with Wikileaks, Openleaks, and Safecast. But, there are also fundamental differences: Wikileaks has a very clear political orientation (confronting with established State and corporate powers), it aims at mobilizing more people, raising awareness, whereas Safecast has none of those objectives. Other important differents exist in terms of genealogy: Wikileaks came from the cryptography/cypherpunk scene, which is a very obscure but vibrant subdomain of (underground and academic) computing. For certain, there are diverging understandings of what Safecast is and what is it for within the project, but one thing is shared among participants: the importance of providing information, so people in Japan can make their own (informed) decisions regarding the nuclear crisis.

      In respect to their contacts in Fukushima, I am not aware of their contact with Iwata-San and CRMS. It is certainly not in the network I described, and it is not part of core group of Safecast volunteers and advisors. It could be a remote connection, but I cannot confirm. One important thing to highlight is: Safecast has connections with families in Fukushima prefecture, which they trained to use geiger counters, providing them with a Safecast’s bgeigie. Safecast had a factory for Geiger counters in Aizu, but they closed it last September. One of the main liassons for Fukushima families is a Japanese journalist, who is bi-lingual (English/Japanese). Some of the core members of Safecast are fully proficient in Japanese, other key volunteers and directors are not. The fact that most of Safecast volunteers are gaijin has also prevented, to a certain extent, the project to engage more with citizen and community-based groups. I hope to elaborate more on this for the final version of the paper.

  9. So I too agree that this is a beautifully crafted paper, both at the analytic and narrative levels.

    There are many different ways in which I’d love to comment on this paper, but let me focus on the desire to have you develop the diachronic aspects of this group’s conduct, and at different scales.

    At the largest scale, I’m interested in how this represents an evolution/instantiation of the open source movement of which it is a part. Luis Felipe, I don’t know if you know this, but I studied one of the historical antecedents to the open source / free software movement, the IBM computer user’s group Share. In my mind, there is no question that there is an institutional/ideological lineage that goes from that group to the Unix users groups, to someone like Richard Stallman and FSF, and the more recent manifestations of the open source movement. The politics of these organizations is also very interesting. The politics of Share was bounded to technocratic definitions of efficincy, corporate authority, and professional aspirations in such a way where when the institutional “politics” became intolerable, individuals simply voted with their feet by chainging firms. Working off the more explicitly politicized context of the 60s, CPSR (and the ACM committe on social responsibility)e merged as the computer scientists’ response to the position that UCS had adopted earlier, and constituted a group that was willing take more of a political position on issue. However, it seems to me, in ways similar to Fred Turner’s account as noted above, that those espousing the open source movement came to bound their politics to the politics associated with the notion of open source itself, with its more conservative or rather libertarian underpinnings.

    This brings me to the second (intermdiate) scale of diachronic analysis. It seems to me that when Tyson points you towards greater reflexivity with regards to your open source commitment, it is not necessarily the case that he’s challenging you with regards to any slippage you make as far as endorsing a particular policy position that is in fact absent in the public statements of THS. However, what may be operative is something that remains invisible to you, in terms of the politics of open source, namely the political significance of the demand for transparency in government operations. Here, in some ways the underlying politics of THS may not be all that different from the politics of something like Wikileaks, though less “vocal” in its implementation, and involves a specific history of how antiestablishmentarian ideas became replicated across specific organizations involved in this kind of advocacy group. The moral/normative/ethical position of the Hackerspace activists is certainly different from that of Assange and others affiliated with Wikileaks, and no less complex. This may be worth mining. I’m intrigued, in particular, by how, specifically, the antiestablishmentarian ideals of the 60s were embodied in the open source movement, and how this meshed with the pent-up anti-bureaucratic impulse within the context of a forever stagnant Japanese economy that made 3.11/Safecast such an effective vehicle for recruiting individuals willing to take up this cause.

    Finally, at the most fine-grained level of analysis, I’m interested in how the political position of those within THS/Safecast evolved in the course of events. I’m not convinced that Safecast was necessarily committed, at the outset, from maintaining policy neutrality—not any more nor less so than the UCS that Schneider describes. At the Copenhagen workshop, we discussed how the data that Safecast and other organizations produced seemed, in the end, to vary little from the data that the government was producing (thought with much more fine grained detail). I can imagine how this conversation unfolded within the THS leaders and volunteers. Had the data come out very different, there may have been more pressure within the organization to “take a political stance,” but in the absence of conflicting data, the THS leadership needed some kind of inspiring rationale to justify the efforts (and continued involvement) of its volunteers (and what they got out of this involvement), and the pressure that they placed on government transparency (which was also a goal from the beginning), as couched in the familiar politics of the open source movement, perhaps immediately surfaced as the governing rationale for the group. The actual conversations may have of course been very different, but I’m wondering whether there isn’t this kind of emergent understanding of the goals of the organization that can be tracked out. (I’m a symbolic interactionist at heart!)

    Truly wonderful work. I’m inspired!

    • Dear Professor Akera: thank you so much for your questions, suggestions, and kind words. I am familiar with your work on SHARE, but I have to confess that I have not read your book yet. It is on my post-fieldwork TODO-list.

      Regarding scales of analysis and the need for a diacronic approach, I tried (tentatively) to point to the internal transformations of Safecast by mapping and describing relationships before (March, 2011), right after (April, 2011 and May, 2011) and one year after (March, 2012) the disaster. Maybe this is something I should emphasize in the final version of the paper, even though I understand that my account is not historical enough. There is certainly a need for a broader contextualization of Open Source hardware and data practices.

      In respect to the geneology (from SHARE to the Unix Community, to Emacs, to FSF, to the Open Source Initiative, and now towards “Open Everything”), I am currently working through and trying to make sense of meaningful historical connections. Groups I am following extend/transform/negotiate the history of Free and Open Source software in different ways and in different contexts: pursuing Open Data, groups of developers, activists, and journalists push for institutional transparency; trying to advance Open hardware (as a platform, a legal device, and a community), groups of engineers, companies, and hobbysts are creating the conditions for collaboration, sharing, and profitability in the context of shared hardware design and (non-institutionalized) basic electronics and engineering training. These technopolitical (and sociotechnical) threads stem from the Free Software historical stock, but transpose the copyleft logic to new arenas with a whole new set of problems, materials, legal arrangements, and interested agents. I do not have good response to your question yet, but I working on it!

      The parallel between Wikileaks and Open Source hardware and data initiatives is fair, but there are important differences. In the context of crisis and Open Source in Japan, responses tend to assume much more of a “corporation-affiliated” tone, than an actual anti-institutional one. Exemples include: Japanese Free Software community gatherings which take place in the headquarters of large IT corporations in Japan; developers working for large Free Software projects also work for transnational IT corporations; Safecast is connected to various companies and universities in order to guarantee funding, resources, voluntary workforce, and seal partnerships which, at once, guarantee legitimacy in the context of crisis, and keep an open channel for future collaboration. So, in a nutshell, the 60s values of anti-establishment (and the critique of centralization and bureaucracy embodied by IBM, as described my Turner) blend with a very dubious anti-hierarchical position (which is even encouraged in some corporate environments), but are not antithetical to corporate and institutional affiliations. I am currently trying to make sense of this very hybridity, therefore I tend to be cautious in drawing parallels between political projects from different domains of experience within the highly fragmented landscape of Free and Open Source projects.

      In respect to project policies and personal/political positions within Safecast and their change overtime, I am not sure if I did put this in the article or in my comments: the very position regarding the avoidance of data interpretation was the product of an internal (and to a smaller extend also public) debate involving core members of the project. One of the very prestigious board member defended the need for Safecast to tell people how to interpret and make sense of the data. Other director, whose position prevailed, advocated for the distinction between Safecast and other nuclear experts and institutions (who were entitled with their university positions and titles, as well as industry credentials and track record to interpret the data). When the governmental data became available and was compared with data from Safecast, active members felt it was an (official) confirmation of the reliability of their volunteer work and organization, not a contradiction of their opinions regarding government corruption and manipulation of the public.

      I am very much looking forward to continue our conversation here, as well as during the workshop. Thank you very much for suggesting productive pathways for the development of the paper!

  10. Bill Kinsella permalink

    Luis, thanks for this provocative paper–I agree with other commenters that you’ve established some important questions. I was also interested in your suggestion that Safecast is operating via a kind of bricolage. If bricolage involves improvising with found materials, I’m interested ion how a bricoleur approach to empirical radiation and public health matters can challenge, or fail to challenge, the very prescribed approaches of mainstream science. After all, science is so often understood as entailing “the scientific method” — where standardization, control, and strict procedures are essential and a formal peer review system enforces those expectations. This point relates to the question of whether Safecast is doing a now kind of science — or perhaps doing something different from science. The other alternative is neither of those, but instead, a hybrid — but might such a hybrid by an oxymoronic phenomenon?

    Also, I believe Deleuze and Guattari characterize bricolage as a shizophrenic mode of invention. That might make it appropriate for a schizophrenic society that embraces fundamentally risky technologies while seeking total control of their effects.

    Looking forward to talking more…

    • Dear Bill Kinsella: by using Lévi-Strauss, I wanted to do two things: 1) rethink the notion of ‘bricolage’ vis-à-vis the contemporary theoretical work in STS, and 2) point to the practice of hardware engineering (of Safecast and THS) in between institutions and domains of practice — the hacker DIY and Open Source hardware community, the academic research, and the nuclear industry.

      Lévy-Strauss suggested a fundamental difference between non-western forms of knowledge and reasoning and that of modern science. By bringing the notion up for discussion, I assumed that STS has helped us to problematize this dichotomy by showing the messy reality of the everyday practice of science; that is, the ‘science of the concrete’ dimension of the everyday practice of science, beyond idealized descriptions and prescriptions.

      More importantly, I wanted to point to the articulation between two domains of practice: that of non-institutionalized computer experts (improvising with materials and techniques) and engineers and that of scientists and engineers working for universities and the nuclear industry (with much less freedom to improvise). I think a resignified notion of ‘bricolage’ could be helpful for us to describe and analyze practices that are situated in between domains of experience and practice, such as Safecast (as they become more and more common).

      I am not very familiar with Deleuze and Guattari (just read portions of “Thousand Plateaus” and Guattari’s “Molecular Revolution”). I think your suggestion is very powerful because it also points to this “in-between” state I was trying to capture with the notion of ‘bricolage”. Maybe my usage of the concept was too idiosyncratic?

      Thank you so much for your comments!
      Let’s continue this conversation here and/or at the workshop.

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