Written by Anna Berti Suman, a PhD researcher at Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society, Tilburg Law School. Anna has a background in Law from the University of Bologna (BA, MA, cum laude) and Transnational Law from the University of Geneva. Her specializations are Health Law and Technology, Environmental Law, and Sustainable Innovation. She has work and research experience in the Health sector, Extractive Industries and Water Law.
On 12 March 2011, a hydrogen explosion occurred in the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The residents of the area were advised to stay inside and avoid any contact with the surrounding environment, including breathing the outside air and drinking tap water. The population living in the surroundings of the plant was evacuated. A second explosion occurred on 14 March worsened the radiation level. Soon, the shortcomings of the government monitoring system emerged. The state system was indeed based on a network of fixed sensors that used models to calculate radiation levels. This meant that numerous locations could not have been checked, which caused anxiety and mistrust in the dwellers exposed to the risk of radiations. The state approach is a clear example of the ‘linear’ way of governing environmental risks to public health by the institutional actors responsible for those risks. Generally, the institutional approach is based on high quality monitoring equipment requiring a considerable expense and continuous labour, which often leads to low spatial and temporal resolution. Furthermore, this monitoring often leads to results which are not easily accessible by non-professional citizens, thus contributing to create a knowledge gap between those exposed to a certain risk and those having the recognized ‘expertise’ to address that risk. As registered in the Fukushima case, this approach is likely to cause a sense of public skepticism about how the institutions are facing a certain risk, which leads on one side to a disruptive tendency (criticizing and rejecting the established system of risk governance), but on the other side constructively stimulates alternative ways for governing a risk.
In the case presented, the aforementioned tendency can be identified in an increase in the sales of radiation monitors purchased by citizens who wanted to measure their exposure to radiation. And they did not limit to that. They organize themselves in an organization, “Safecast”, devoted to open citizen science for the environment and, in particular, for radiation monitoring after Fukushima accident. The web-based platform was established in 2011 by a group of volunteers with the aim to make publicly available accurate and trustworthy radiation information, with a view to complementing or substituting the insufficient official information. The data are visualized using Google Fusion Tables to produce maps. Specifically, the Safecast Map depicts over 4,000,000 radiation data points. The map is fed with ad hoc data collected by citizens through low-cost radiation monitors. The data are licensed with a Creative Commons 0 license, which allows anyone anywhere in the world to use the data for any purpose. The trend from few, expensive, state-owned sensors to many, widespread, publicly-owned monitoring devices shows the need for an horizontal transparency, which entails even access to information and reliance on bottom-up produced knowledge.
Cases like Safecast can be grouped into the concept of ‘Citizen Sensing’, here regarded as a practice of monitoring environmental (health) factors using smartphones and networked devices, which may foster citizen participation in tracking risks. Safecast and similar initiatives indicate the willingness of people to see their right to live in a healthy environment in action, and their commitment to have it enforced through the legal, social and even technological avenues available to them. It is nowadays plain that climate change, pollution and other environmental hazards directly and indirectly affect the physical, social, and psychological health of humans. This public and environmental health risk could be minimized with effective adaptation strategies and proper governance. People are increasingly becoming aware of the preventability of these risks, and push for a change in the way in which the risk is communicated and managed. Non-expert people, as the Fukushima dwellers, can take advantage of technology (in particular sensors and data infrastructures) to visualize, monitor, report and combat risks caused by environmental factors to public health. Thorough research is needed on the influence of bottom-up citizen sensing on the governance of public/environmental health risk that is predominantly top-down. In my view, citizen sensing can complement the current models of risk governance; however, legal, social and political challenges may hinder the success of citizen sensing initiatives.