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Looking for transparency in a nuclear world

The IAEA discovers the importance of crowdsourcing from a group of volunteers who don't rely on government data.
Last modified: 21 Feb 2014 17:00
All you need to sort of be able to cover an IAEA conference [D. Parvaz, Jazeera]

Vienna, Austria - A meeting room in the Austrian capital's cool museum quarter might seem like an odd venue to discuss what Japan is doing with radioactive debris it is collecting from the contaminated whatnot being collected after the Daiichi plant in Fukushima started leaking after being battered by a tsunami in 2011.

But there were Azby Brown and Joe Moross, setting up the slides prior to their Friday night presentation - a hackathon/workshop, held at a hackerspace, is meant to inform, educate and maybe mobilise civilians as part of their crowdsourcing army of volunteer data gatherers.

They hold these hackerspaces regularly, anywhere they can, telling people what they've learned about from the experience of collecting data after the nuclear accident in Japan, teaching people how to build bGeigie Nano measurement devices and how to upload measurements onto the sites maps, which, unlike the Japanese government’s (only on paper or as PDFs) are easy to find and interactive.

Filmmaker Edgar Honetschlager, who lived in Japan for 12 years, said he would be purchasing a bGeigie meter because the notion of participating for him is empowering and counters apathy and “oblivion”.

“I’m not talking about conspiracies, but I’m talking about how Japan isn’t following the principle of democratic concepts,” said Honetschlager, referring to the government and societal response to the disaster in Japan.

Since the start of the disaster, Moross and Brown have been part of Safecast, a non-political, non-profit, non-partisan (so that's neither pro-nor-anti-nuclear) group simply dedicated to getting as many accurate radiation measuring points mapped.

"The Japanese government's failings provided us with an opportunity to start an entirely new type of social movement," said Brown.

He ended up leaving a bGeigie with an IAEA engineer who stopped by at the end of the session.

Lumbering bureaucracy

Just three days prior to holding their Vienna hackerspace, the two found themselves where they thought they'd never be: In front of a room full of industry experts, giving a presentation on who they are and what they do at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference.

To their surprise, it went well – very well.

"I was expecting that we'd be blown off," said Brown, but he and Moross describe the moment when a room of roughly 200 started tilting to their side, when experts who had little respect for crowdsourcing suddenly realising that in the event of a disaster, trained, data-gathering volunteers were to be appreciated, not dismissed.

Even if they had an open audience at the IAEA – all sessions are closed to the public – they said they still would hold workshops and hachathons.

“Talking to people one-on-one and getting a chance to address their questions in person is the best thing we could do,” said Moross.

While Safecast was invited to speak - one does not simply crash an IAEA conference of experts - Brown was advised, though not ordered, to tailor their presentation and to eliminate some language that seemed critical of bureaucracy and lumbering government process in Japan.

So these informal hackerspace meetings are crucial, given how closed things remain not only within the nuclear industry, but even at the IAEA.

That some parts of the region remain evacuated and fear of radiation contamination are still key concerns in the largely agricultural area.  Compounding these concerns are the fact that the population lost a great deal of trust in the Japanese government as well as the nuclear industry in general, especially given that the latter tends to be far from transparent, as a rule.

Communication problems

An IAEA conference called “International Experts’ Meeting on Radiation Protection after the Fukushima Daiichi Accident – Promoting confidence and understanding”, then (February 17-21), seems like a good idea. Except that it seems to be an echo chamber.

Indeed, some participants were surprised to hear that the sessions were closed to the press, while others declined to be interviewed on the grounds that they weren’t experts (pointing out the name of the conference to them yielded sheepish looks).

I was provided with a press pass and three point-people on the IAEA media staff - all very pleasant, offering help.

Great! I requested an interview with the IAEA Scientific Secretariat, Tony Colgan (no can do). Or a statement on why the conference was closed to the media (not so much). How about an IAEA expert on the effects of radiation on sea life? (Nope).

I knew the sessions would be closed before I went and that I could only attend the closing press conference, which was not listed on the printed programme. But I didn’t want to pass up any opportunity to speak to experts on the subject.

What did the press pass allow me to do? Watch a promotional video on how swell life in Fukushima is on a loop outside the conference room, chase down experts in hallways (hey, part of the job - no complaints), and puzzle as to why the IAEA had used a photo of a 2012 fire drill at the Daini plant on a poster of accident management at Daiichi.

The presentations were available on a USB drive provided, but what the media missed was the robust Q&A and discussions that took place.

In the press conference we were told that we were kept out of the sessions because experts were worried about talking with reporters in the room - but if they can't communicate effectively with the media, what hope do they have of communicating with the public?

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