Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crowd-Sourcing Safety?

Guards in protective gear near the
Fukushima-1 nuclear plant's main gate,
Al Jazeera news reports that a group of techies involved with the Toyko HackerSpace are heading a project to make information about radiation levels in northeast Japan more accurate and available to those living there.

Safecast.org has been handing out Geiger counters to residents and running them around the affected areas around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.  The information is updated to the website, which aggregates data from government agencies and charity organizations who are also watching radiation levels.

The goal is to provide information that is more transparent, regularly updated, and localized than is currently available.  People in Japan are already living in perpetual uncertainty, not knowing whether another plate-tectonic  event is about to ravage what meager stability they have forged.  The inconsistent reports of radiation levels in the air, the food, and the water leave people essentially making decisions blind.  

There's a lot that could be said about the responsibility of government in disaster situations.  The problem in Japan doesn't just amount to a lack of government response - it's also an issue of transparency.  Numbers that are reported are hard to contextualize because the radiation-measuring process isn't clear and residents have no way to fact-check the information.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Embargo System

A water bear, crazy-looking
 but decidedly terrestrial.
Image credit: NASA.
Do you know where your science news comes from?

A lot of the most prestigious journals for scientific publications put out information in a cloak-and-dagger style known as the embargo system.  They select media outlets that they consider appropriate or legitimate enough for their purposes and send them information on upcoming publications.  The chosen media outlets get the info in advance of publication as long as they agree not to breathe a word to anyone until the embargo is lifted.

It's kind of an alien concept for a lot of journalists, and it can be pretty problematic for news in general.  In November of last year, the internet just about peed its pants over this NASA announcement:
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
Speculation about the discovery of ET ran pretty rampant.  Unfortunately, the journalists who knew the truth (that scientists had discovered a certain bacteria that could exchange phosphorus for arsenic in its DNA) couldn't quell the media clamor because they were sworn to secrecy.

Even worse, when the information went fully public, it seemed like a let-down.  Although the findings were significant and have implications for finding life in places once considered inhospitable, the truth didn't sound anywhere near as exciting as the rumors.

Ultimately the secrecy and hype did a disservice to science.  Maybe it's time we rethink the system.