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Russia: Unexpected Results of Radiation Mapping

Radiation symbol, photo by Michael Hicks

Radiation symbol, photo by Michael Hicks

The crowdsourcing project of mapping radiation levels in Russia measured by private dosimeters not only became  an interesting case of digital activism, but also showed some effects its creators didn’t even think of.

Disaster Triggers Online Activity

While writing the article on nuclear debate provoked by the series of explosions at “Fukushima 1″ nuclear plant, I’ve noticed that in the comments section of news articles, as well as at the local message boards, Internet users were exchanging the data on radiation levels in their cities. Excited by the observation, I offered to Gregory Asmolov, a RuNet Echo contributing editor, to create a crowdsourcing map that would structure these chaotic data and provide comprehensive information on  radiation levels in the regions surrounding Japan.

It took one night for Gregory to create this map (later called “Radiation Map”) at, online Ushahidi service. And unlike in our previous project, we didn’t have to go through the painful process of bug-fixing and editing Russian translations of Ushahidi installation. We were also able to make a multi-lingual platform offering opportunities to map radiation for English-speakers. After sending a few links to the interested parties (like Russian Greenpeace, which helped a lot in spreading the news about the project), we started inviting moderators. Five out of six moderators that joined Radiation Map came from the Help Map project. This proves the point of Gregory Asmolov that crowdsourcing initiatives from one emergency case to another form a core of activists willing to participate in the next projects.

In the United States, a similar map-based project had been launched several days later. Almost simultaneous appearance of several projects doing basically the same thing illustrated that mapping became a somewhat “conditioned reflex” of the bloggers all over the world. If radio gave each event a sound, TV – an image, then this relatively new ‘mapping reflex’ gave each event a geographical location.

Unplanned Usage

The initial idea of Radiation Map was to organize the chaotic data from the personal dosimeters in the Russian regions neighboring Japan. Most personal readings have proven (and keep proving) that there’s no increase in the radiation level on the Russian side, and thus all rumors about the “nuclear plume” are highly exaggerated by the conventional media.

Then, the users started to report reading and ask to measure radiation levels in their own areas. The requests were made from the cities on the other side of the globe – in the European Russia, some eight-nine thousand kilometers from Japan. What’s even more interesting, other users started to reply to the requests, providing dosimeter data and supporting it with the photos of dosimeters.

The Radiation Map not only helped organize information and lower the panic around Fukushima, but also assisted in re-discovering Russian territories heavily contaminated with radiation. The following message [ru] represents one – and so far, the only – case of such “re-discovery”:

Автомагистраль Челябинск-Екатеринбург. Возле моста фон – 340 мкР/час. В 20 метрах от моста 310 мкР/час. Замерено радиометром “Нейва”.

Комментарий Дениса Куландина:
При мощности экспозиционной дозы естественного фона (5-30) мкР/ч, показания на индикаторе должны быть в пределах 5 – 30 мкР/ч. Опасной считается доза в 50 микрорентген. Тут речь идет об опасном для жизни уровне! Необходимо проверить показания! Я отправил письмо, ожидаю ответа.

Highway somewhere between Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg. Next to the bridge [over Techa river] – 340 microroentgen per hour. In 20 meters from the bridge – 310 microroentgen per hour. Measured with “Neiva” [Russian brand - GV] dosimeter.

Denis Kulandin [one of the Radiation Map moderators - GV] commented:
Considering that the exposure dose of the natural radiation level is about 5-30 microroentgen per hour, the data on the [dosimeter - GV] indicator should be within these values. The radiation level is considered dangerous starting from the level of 50 microroentgen per hour. Now, that is the dangerous level! We need to check this data! I've sent a letter, waiting for the answer.

Techa river is a famous case of radioactive contamination for physicians all over the world (as one article re-phrased a famous meme: “In Soviet Russia, Lake Contaminates You”). Back in 1957, a Kyshtym disaster happened (the second most destructive nuclear disaster in the human history after Chernobyl). For many Russians, however, the story is still either unknown or the radioactive contamination is perceived not dangerous.

Commenter named Pavel (in his e-mail he wrote that he's a local journalist) explained [ru] the nature of unusually high level of the radiation:

[...] Это последствия сброса жидких радиоактивных отходов ПО “Маяк” в каскад Теченских водоемов. Странно что на этом сайте это не было отмечено ранее… Выше по течению (как можно видеть на карте) и располагается этот каскад. Там фон, я думаю, в тысячи раз выше того, что я намерил на этом мосту.[...]

[...] These are the consequences of the liquid radioactive waste discharge from Mayak chemical plant [early Cold War nuclear plant - GV] to the cascade of Techa reservoirs. It is strange that no one had pointed out this place before… As you can see on the map, the cascade is situated upstream. The radiation level there, I think, is thousand times higher than at the bridge where I made my radiation measurement [...]

When the Radiation Map was created, the both cases of self-help in spreading radiation data and re-discovery of contaminated places were not planned . This unusual usage illustrates how people inhabitate digital spaces and use platform functionality in the ways limited only by their creativity.

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