February 2020

Talking about Safecast

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.

Tara, Ripley & Sydney, Los Angeles circa 2011

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.

Once Upon A Time In Bradenton

While walking home from the office the other day and talking to myself along the way I remembered a story from my childhood that I’d mostly forgotten. This was also when I was in 7th and 8th grade, I started hanging out with this kid named Erik-with-a-k who was as crappy of a skateboarder as I was so I didn’t feel too self conscious around him. We’d skate at a nearby school parking lot and sometimes visit a neighborhood ramp, he’d bring a little portable tape deck and blast Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks tapes. He’d tell me about a good friend of his who was a stupidly famous pro skater and I’d tell him he was full of shit. Then he’d tell me about him in front of his parents and they’d nod agreeingly so I figured maybe it was legit. One day he announced that he’d talked to his friend and this dude was going to be sending a care package of 25 complete boards for free, and Erik-with-a-k said he was going to give me 5 of them. This was huge because I was poor and had a really old really beat up deck, and the expected build was legit. Indy trucks, Slimeballs, Powell Swiss bearings and flypaper griptape. I’m embarrassed that I still remember this. 

Anyway, separately there was a legendarily good skater in our small Florida town named Caleb who could ollie into the back of a pickup truck, you can ask anyone. And this new windfall of skateboard booty had given me an idea. I knew a girl who knew a guy who people said sometimes skated with Caleb and I asked her if she could ask him if he could pass on a letter for me. He said yes, and she said yes. So, 13 or 14 year old me wrote a letter to Caleb. I told him he probably didn’t know who I was but I knew all about him and his pick up truck oillie-ing. I asked him if he’d teach me how to skate, because I sucked and everyone I knew sucked and I just wanted some tips from someone who knew what they were doing. Keep in mind this was 1988 or so and there was no YouTube. Anyway I told him about the skateboards I was about to get, and offered him one of the complete builds in return for his skate tutoring. I gave the letter to the girl, she said she gave it to the guy, but Caleb never replied. 

A year later I’d go to high school and it would be the same high school that Caleb went to, though he was a few years older. Being a punk or skateboarding wasn’t really a cool thing to do in those days, especially not in the middle of Florida. [As an aside that same year I’d run for (and lose) student council Vice President using the slogan Sean B for VP and my campaign posters had a drawing of a kid on a skateboard which I drew and thought was cool, but some other Sean B in my school who was a surfer didn’t take too kindly too and pulled me aside one day and told me to take every last one down or he and his surf friends were going to beat my sorry skater ass because he didn’t want anyone thinking the posters were his implying that he skated.] Anyway, During lunch all 5 or 6 people who were into punk or skateboarding or that kind of thing would end up sitting together at lunch and yes that meant that eventually I’d be sitting with Caleb, who by this time had lost all his mythos and was just a stoner in my mind. To his credit he never made fun of me, though one day he would ask me if I ever got all those skateboards. Which I didn’t, because the story from Erik-with-a-k was bullshit.

Turns out Erik-with-a-k was a pathological liar, the first I’d ever recognized. We’d stopped being friends the previous summer when his mother found a massive stash of porno mags under his bed and he’d played dumb by blaming them on me, saying I’d ask him to hold some things for him but told him he wasn’t allowed to look at them. His mother believed him and called my mother to tell her how I was poisoning the mind of her sweet innocent child and I wasn’t welcome in their home anymore. I got grounded because “you know what you did” though I didn’t know, and it wasn’t until I called Erik-with-a-k to find out what the fuck was going on that I learned what was going on when as he, over the phone, lied to my face about it. I told him to fuck off, he told me he’d kick my ass if he ever saw me again.

A few years later I’d see him again, he’d turned into a cowboy and was hanging out in the back of a pick up truck with some other cowboys in the parking lot of the Denny’s my friends and I would go to. When I say he turned into a cowboy I mean he’d started wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and had developed a very strong southern drawl. I said “Hey Erik-with-a-k what the fuck is up with the cowboy boots and hat and that southern drawl?” and he said “Boy! Whyount you comm’on over ‘ere and you’ll find out!” and I said “No thanks” and went inside the Denny’s. He and his friends drove away pretty quickly once more of my friends showed up and joined me inside. They were probably worried someone would throw a skateboard at their pickup truck and scratch the paint or something. When I got home that night there was a message on my answering machine from him, full hick-accent and with some good-ol boys a hootin’ and a hollerin’ in the background and conveyin’ the message that I got lucky tonight but he’d find me some other time when I didn’t have all my friends and teach me a lesson about respect.

I’m pretty sure I never saw or heard from him ever again though I passed some dude who looked a hell of a lot like him on the moving sidewalk at Denver airport about 5 years ago and I like to think it was him and he got scared because he didn’t have his rodeo clowns with him and ran anyway as soon as he got off the moving sidewalk. True story.

[This story was originally written for my newsletter/mailing list thing which you should subscribe to if you haven’t already.]