Tag Archives: data sharing

National Security and Personal Bests

Was it only a coincidence that on the eve President Donald Trump boasted in his State of the Union address of an era “we no longer tell our enemies our plans” that the release of a live global heatmap pinpointed the location of U.S. military installations?  The release by Strava Labs of a spectacular heatmap that celebrated the routes where folks exercise worldwide suggested the flows of itineraries of physical exercise by running, biking, or skiing in stunning lines to reflect increased intensity, that appeared as if engraved on a dark OSM base map.  Indeed, the open nature of the data on military positions offered to any viewer of the heatmap seems as pernicious as culling of internet use long engaged in by the NSA, but for the state–as well as for the safety of soldiers who share their location, or fail to use security settings, as they exercise while completing military service abroad. Is this approaching a new level not only of broadcasting plans to an enemy, but failing to protect military positions in internationally sensitive zones?

While the map had been around for several years, its detailed update was so much more comprehensive than the 2015 version included–and was released in a time when internet observers scrutinize data visualizations.  The updated heatmap was a big deal for how it illuminated the world in a ways that few had seen, both in its own architecture of a spectacular network of athletes that reflected its expanded use, and the huge data included in aggregated routes for training, but illuminating clear divides between its users; but it gained even more attention foregrounding the presence of isolated groups of athletic performance abroad with an eery precision and legibility that quickly raised concerns reminiscent of the scale of unwanted intruding or monitoring of physical actives, even in an app that based its appeal in the data density of tracking it provided.  While promising individual privacy or anonymity, the benefits promised by the fitness app seemed almost a runaround of the appeal of PGP, Tor, and Privacy Badger that promised a degree of privacy by encrypting data from online trackers and privacy self-defense; rather than ensure the anonymization of the internet connections, however, the platform posted patterns of use whose legibility did not violate individual privacy, so much as state secrets.  Indeed, the surprising effects of how the Strava app made individuals suddenly legible so that they popped out of darker regions was perhaps the most striking finding of the global heatmap, as it illuminated stark discontinuities.

The newly and vastly amplified dataset included zoom functions of much greater specificity:  so richly detailed Strava was charged with betraying once secret locations of U.S. military worldwide, even if unknowingly, and creating a data vulnerability for the nation the would have global effects.  The heatmap made stunningly visible rasterized images of the aggregate activity of those sharing their locations that it gained unwanted degree of publicity months after it went live in November, 2017, for revealing the actual location and global military presence of American soldiers tracking their exercise and sharing geodata–including American and European soldiers stationed in the Middle East and Africa, and even in South Korea.  Although the California-based fitness app rendered space that seemed to celebrate the extent and intensity of physical exercise in encomiastic ways, as if the app succeeded in motivating invigorating exploration of space, and tracking one’s activity that guaranteed anonymity by blending data of its users in brightly lit zones, as for the Bay Area–


Bay Area.png


–the image that had clear implications of announcing its near-global adoption registered in the more isolated circumstances that many members of the American military increasingly find themselves.  The data set that Strava celebrated in November, 2017 as “beautiful data” on the athletic playgrounds of the world took an unexpected turn within months, as Strava came to remind all military users to opt out of sharing their geodata on the zoomable global heatmap, that aggregated shared geodata, lest secret locations of a global American military presence that extended to the Middle East and Africa be inadvertently revealed.  Whereas the California fitness app wanted to celebrate its global presence, the map revealed the spread of secret bases of the U.S. military in a globalized world.  The map of all users sharing geodata with the app were not intended to be personalized, but the global heatmap showed bright spots of soldiers stationed in several war zones.

The narrative in which the map was seen changed, in other words, as it became not a data dump of athletic performance across the world, that was able to measure and celebrated individual endurance,  but a narrative of hidden military and intelligence locations, tagging CIA operatives and overseas advisors by indelibly illuminating their exercise routes in a field of war in ways that seemed to foretell the end of military secrets in a world of widespread data-sharing. And Strava Labs for their part probably didn’t exactly help the problem when they took time to assure the public that they indeed “take the safety of our community seriously and are committed to work with military and governmental authorities to correct any sensitive areas that appear” in the web-maps,” as if to assure audiences they privileged the public interest and public safety of their users.  (But as much as addressing public safety in terms of operational security, Strava’s public statements were limited to caring for the community of users of the app, more than actual states.  The disjunction reveals very much:  when Strava labs saw their “users” or customers as the prime audience to which they were faithful, they indeed suggested that they held an obligation to users outside of loyalty to any nation-state, and indeed celebrated the geographical distribution of their own community across national frontiers.)  Indeed, the app’s heatmap disrespected national frontiers, by suggesting an alternate space of exercise that was believed and treated as it had nothing political in it.

In contrast, the landscape that American President Donald Trump presented in his first chest-thumping first State of the Union returned to the restoration of American security seemed incredibly to deny the consequences of recent availability of military geodata and indeed military base locations, in announcing that in his watch, we “no longer tell .  our enemies our plans.  For whereas President Trump boasted the return to an era of national security and guarded military secrets, the app broadcast a pinpoint record of the global dispersion of American troops, military consultants, and CIA “black” sites and annexes.  Indeed, for all the vaunted expansion of the U.S. military budget, the increased vulnerability of special operations forces has been something that the United States has poorly prepared for, although the release of the heat map prompted Gen. Jim Mattis to undertake a review of all use of social media devices within the military, so shocked was the news of the ability to plot geographical location by the exercise app. If the activities tracked and monitored in the hugely popular fitness app suggested a world taking better care for their patterns of exercise, it revealed scary patterns as a proxy to chart American presence that map the recent global expansion of the United States military in the beauty of its global picture across incandescently illuminated streams–




–as when one zoomed down to those running in Kabul, and geolocated the movement in ways that betrayed military footprint from intelligence personnel to foreign operatives to contractors overseas.  The data harvested on its platform appears to endanger American national security–and offers new ways to combine with information culled from social media–as it seems to pinpoint the bases around which military take their daily runs.


Strava sites?Strava heatmap, Kabul


The recognition of the scale of personal tracking by soldiers sharing data on exercise apps grew as one exploited the heatmap’s scalability, and examined areas in which few locals were using it–or had access to the First World problem of registering how many miles one ran.  While the data was not only sourced from Americans, the anonymity of the aggregate map–which can be viewed in multiple shades–provided an image of ghostly presence that seemed particularly apt to describe concerns of security and suggest an aura of revealing secret knowledge.  The cool factor of the Strava map lit up the hidden knowledge that echoed the longstanding surveillance of the communication records of Americans in the bulk data collection that the Patriot Act allowed, although now the dragnet on data use was being done by private enterprise, suggesting an odd public-private sharing of technology, as what had been viewed as a domestic market suddenly gained new uses on an international front.  The poor data security of U.S. forces abroad reminded us that we are by no means the only actor collecting bulk data, but also the scale of digital dust that we all create as we entrust information about our geographical locations to companies even when they promote the value of doing so to be salutary.

Multiple accusatory narratives quickly spun about whether the release of the new global heatmap by Strava Labs constituted a breach in national security.  The soundbite from the State of the Union proclaiming a “new era” described changed conditions by referencing Gen. Michael Flynn’s charge, first raised during the 2016 Presidential campaign on national television news,  that the United States had sadly become “the best enemies in the world” during the Obama years, as he attacked the government of which he had been part for being itself complicit in how “our enemies love when we telegraph what we’re doing” by not maintaining secrecy in our military plans.  Flynn’s assertion became something of a meme in the campaign trail.  And President Trump sought to reference the fear of such changes of a past undermining national authority abroad when he claimed to bring closure to lax security, choosing to message that the loopholes that existed were now closed, and respect had been achieved.  The fictionalized imaginary landscape seemed to distract America from danger or unemployment in celebrating its arrival in a better economic place.  The message seemed as imaginary as the landscape of an employed America, which had arrived in a better economic and place.

General Flynn’s metaphor of telegraphing was even then quaintly outdated, as if from a different media world.  But the allegation that had become a meme on alt right social media during the campaign to discredit military competence, gaining new traction as data security became increasingly a subject of national and international news.  Since President, despite having quickly issued one of executive orders that he has been so fond of signing on cybersecurity, Trump has in fact been openly criticized for a lack of vision or of leadership in addressing  national vulnerabilities in cybersecurity.  As President, Trump has preferred to pay lip service in the executive order, by far his preferred medium of public communication, to the growing frustration of a number of cybersecurity advisors who resigned before clarifying best practices of grid security.   Broad sharing of geodata by military and intelligence raised red flags of security compromises; it would, perhaps, be better raise a clarion call about our unending readiness to aggregate and be aggregated, and the unforeseen risks of sharing data.

The patterns of tracking exercise–biking, running, swimming, windsurfing–created striking pictures in aggregate, reflecting the collective comparisons of routes and itineraries, and showing a terrain vibrant with activity.  But while the app did not specialize in tracking individual performance or local movements, the new context of many apps transformed foreign counties where military travelled to sites where their data sharing stood out.  The sense of accessing the platform was so second nature to American soldiers moved across space, in fact, ignorant of the platform on which it was aggregated and its effects–or the audiences before who it was broadcast and displayed.  The ability to detect bright spots of athletic engagement around American bases, military camps, and CIA outposts suggested an unwanted form of data-sharing, RT television newscasters proclaimed with undisguised pleasure at the ease with which soldiers could be observed in different locations across the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and crowed that Americans are so unwary about being surveilled so as to provide evidence willingly of their own global footprint’s size.




It’s striking that government secrecy has become a public hallmark of the Trump administration.  But if Trump wanted to inaugurate the start of a fictional landscape of securing state secrets in his first State of the Union address, his words were pronounced with no acknowledgement of the release of the heatmap and the concerns of leaking security operations.  The map that Strava labs designed to celebrate the global extension of a triumphal image of the expansion of exercise in a triumphal image appeared in new guise as the latest example of breached military security secrets–suddenly made apparent at high resolution when one zoomed in at greater scale to Syria, Somalia, Niger, or Afghanistan, and even seem to be able to track the local movement of troops in active areas of war, and not only identify those bases, airfields, and secret annexes, but map their outlines that corresponded to the laps that soldiers seem to have run regularly around their perimeter while sharing their geodata publicly, or with the app.  While the app was designed to broadcast one’s personal best, as well as log one’s heart rate, sleep patterns, and performance (personal data which remained private), it collated in aggregate the patterns of activity across national borders.

For its part, Strava had only boasted it could “create the ultimate map of athlete playgrounds” by rendering “Strava’s global network of athletes” in a stunning heatmap from directly uploaded data.  If there was a sense that the “visualization of Strava’s global network of athletes” described a self-selected community, the beauty of the data set created from 13 trillion data points provided a new sense of exercise space, as if it sketched a record in aggregate of individual endurance, or a collective rendering of folks achieving personal bests.  But the illuminated “maps” of the global network of those exercising and the distribution of US military bases and sites of secret involvement raises complex issues of data-sharing, and the shock at the intersection of leisure space and military secrets–somewhat akin to the stern warning military commanders issued to years ago about using Pokemon Go! in restricted areas of military bases, mapping a comprehensive global map of military over-extension is an odd artifact of globalization.  And it was odd to see RT seize on this issue, as a way of describing the presence of the actors they id’d as “Uncle Sam” to suggest how zooming in on the global map revealed the reach of the United States in Afghanistan or Syria, as if playing a computerized game to see where clusters of forces might be illuminated, as if to exploit fears of revealing military secrets through geolocated data.

The story was pitched on RT suggested a market-driven surveillance network of which the Americans were themselves the dupes.  In its own spin on the story, RT reported of the leaks with glee, for rather than arriving from hackers, or Russian-sponsored hacking groups, military security was compromised by the very tracking devices, it was argued, that soldiers, military intelligence, and CIA officers wore.






By imposing outlines of national maps on the dynamic rasters of the web map that Strava released, the position of military forces or advisors indeed seemed able to be roughly revealed as military secrets by zooming into locations, much as RT announcers asserted, as if the “bracelets” of fitbits provided tools to geolocate soldiers as if they were manacles, reminiscent of the ankle bracelets given to many parolees, sex offenders, or prisoners, by using a GPS tracking system to monitor released inmates all the better to monitor their acitivities, in a practice that has only grown in response to overcrowding conditions in many federal and state prisons–GPS tracking systems were billed as able to save prisons up to $9,500 per inmate, or up to $25 a day; but rather than provide tools to surveil non-violent offenders, the effective monitoring of military bases and what seem CIA field stations provided a multiple security vulnerabilities of unprecedented scale.

But the real story may have been how so much data was available not only for state eyes, but for a broader public:  in an age where surveillance by the state is extending farther than ever before, and when we need, in the words of Laura Poitras, “a practical and metaphorical road map for navigating the post-9/11 landscape,” the maps of Strava have shifted the landscape of surveillance far from the state, and deflected it onto the internet.  For the far greater geographical precision and detail of a diverse user group may prefigure the future of data sharing–and the increased vulnerabilities that it creates.  The live data map broadcast not only an image of global divides, but of the striking patterns of the aggregation of geodata that reminded us of  the pressing problem of data vulnerability in the military’s extended network of secret military bases and dark sites.  Indeed, when a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Nathan Russer, first noted that the Strata search engine created an Op-Sec catastrophe for leaking locations of US military patrols and bases, his observations unleashed a storm of pattern analysis and fears of compromised national security.  It indeed seems that the vaunted agility that allowed American forces to deploy in much of the world could now be readily observed, as we zoom into specific sites of potential military involvement to uncover the presence of Americans and assess the degree of involvement in different sites, as well as the motion through individual sites of conflict.  The spectral map that results suggests something quite close to surveillance–at time, one can scrape the place of individual users form the app’s web map–but that is dislodged from the state.

The notion of a private outsourcing of data surveillance to the public sphere is hardly new.  One can think, immediately, of Facebook’s algorithms or personal data-harvesting or those of search engines.  Although the U.S. Department of Defense has urged all active military abroad to limit their active presence in online social media, no matter where they are stationed, the news reminded us yet again of an increased intersection between political space and social media, even if this time the intersection seems more shaped like a Moebius strip.  The divisions within a global geographic visualization of Strava’s users reminded one of a usage landscape that suggested a striking degree of continuity with the Cold War–with an expanded iron curtain, save in scattered metropoles–whose stark spatial division reminded us of the different sort of lifestyles that public posts of athletic performance reveals.  As much as showing a greater openness, the heat map suggests a far greater willingness of posting on social media use:  the intersection suggests a different familiarity with space, and a proprietary value to the internet.’


strava1Strava Labs


Indeed, in only a few months to notice how American soldiers’ presence in coalition military sites suddenly popped out in the darker spaces of the Syrian Civil War, where different theaters of action of coalition forces that include American soldiers are revealed, and panning back to other theaters can indeed revealed the global presence of U.S. military and intelligence.  Against a dark field, the erasure of any sense of national frontiers in the Strata labs data map suggests the permeability of much of the world not only by interactive technologies but by the isolated groups of soldiers who deal with the stress of deployment by bike rides and runs while they are stationed in Afghanistan.



Runing In Kabul


Although the fitness app saw its aggregation as registering geodata in the relatively apolitical space of physical exercise, fears of political and national security repercussions ran pretty high.  Indeed, the tracking of running laps, cycling, and daily exercise routines revealed U.S. military bases in Syria so clearly that it proved a basis to locate and orient oneself to an archipelago of U.S. military activity abroad in the global heat map, and lit up American presence in Mosul, Tanff, north of Bagdad and around Raqqa, providing a historical map able to pinpoint airfields, outposts, and secret stations in the war against the Islamic State.  Security analysts like Tobias Schneider argued they helped track the movements and locations of troops and even extract information on individual soldiers.  In place of an image of the global contagion of tracking exercise, the patterns of performance provided a way to look at the micro-climates of exercise on a scaling that were not otherwise evident in the arcs of the impressive global heatmap.

Sissela Bok classically noted the ways that secrecy and privacy overlap and are linked in some collective groups, as the military, but the absence of privacy or secrecy on much of the Strava Labs heatmap raised questions of the increasing difficulties to maintain a sense of secrecy or privacy in an age of geographically growing war.  In an age when more and more are living under surveillance, and indeed when the surveillance of subjects has only begun to gain attention as a fact of life, the fear of broadcasting an effective surveillance of exercising soldiers seems particularly ironic–or careless.  The practices of secrecy were more than lax.  For the United States military has in fact, quite vigorously promoted Fitbit flex trackers among pilot programs at U.S. bases to lose calories, and provided devices that measure steps walked, calories burned, and health sleep as part of its Performance Triad;  Fitbit trackers were provided as part of a pilot fitness program from 2013 with few issues raised about security, and placing restrictions on American soldiers’ use of mobile phones, peripherals, or wearable technologies would limit military volunteers.  (The Pentagon has in all distributed 2,500 Fitbits as part of its anti-obesity program, in more flexible wearable form, without thinking of the information that they broadcast.)  Yet soon after the map appeared, folks noted on Twitter with irony that “Someone forgot to turn off their Fitbit,” and it became a refrain on social media by late January, as the image that tracked American military outposts not only in Kabul, but in the Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Niger all popped out of a global map–embodying the very outlines of the camps around which military run.  ‘

Although the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center informed the intelligence community of dangers of being tagged by “social media postings,” the imagined privacy of exercising soldiers is far less closely monitored than should be the case–resulting in a lack of clear vigilance about publishing Strava data.


Runing In Kabul.pngKabul, Afghanistan, in Strava Labs global heatmap


The heat map so strongly lluminated itineraries users ran, biked, or skied, tracked in incandescently illuminated streams, and even zoom in on specific locations, where they stand out from considerably darker zones of low use of the app, that some national security officials wanted the app to take time to take the maps offline so that they could be scrubbed; worries grew that one could even to scrape the itineraries of individual soldiers who exercise on military service in the heatmaps.

But the two fold ways of reading of the map’s surface suggest that their contents were difficult to free.  The same map celebrating the app’s global use revealed deep discrepancies between the brightly illuminated areas of high-use and data input and its dark zones.  Data mapped on Strava’s website also seems to enable one to id the soldiers using the Strava app with far greater certainty than foreign governments or non-state actors had before, in ways that would create multiple potentially embarrassing problems of delicate foreign relations.  While in part the fear may have derived from the hugeness of the dataset, the fear of being compromised by data raised an increased sense of emergency of a security being risked, and fears of national vulnerability.  Partly this was because of the huge scale of geospatial data.  The updated version of the heatmap issued by Strava Labs illuminated the world in a way that few had seen, and not only because of its greater specificity:  Strava had doubled its resolution, rasterizing all activity and data directly uploaded, and optimizing rasters to ensure a far richer and more beautiful visualization, along glowing lines to reflect intensity of use that looked as if they were in fact vectors.  It made its data points quite beautiful, stretching them into bright lines, eliminating noise and static to create a super smooth image that almost seems to update the Jane Jacobs’ notions of public space and its common access–and the definition of spaces for exercise.

To some extent, the highlighting that the app did of common routes of exercise seem to mirrored the metric of walkability, the measurement of active transportation forms like walking and biking and stood as a surrogate for environmental quality.  The fitness map improved on the walkscore or its cosmopolitan variants, by involving its users to create a new map of exercising space.  The abilities to foreground individual and collective athletic performance in a readily accessible map provided what must be admitted is a pretty privileged view of the world; but the self-mapped community it revealed gained a new context just two months after it went live, as the map drew attention to the patterns it revealed of using an app to track one’s activities, as much as register work-out trails.


San Fran Strava dataset  San Francisco in Strava Labs Heatmap


The new map attracted attention not only for the fitness crowd, a self-selecting demographic, in short, but as an interesting extension of the beauty and the huge amount of datasets it uploaded and digested in a highly legible form:  indeed the legibility of the data that was able to be regularly updated online suggested a new form of consensual surveillance.  The data-rich expansion of what was the first update to the global heat map of users that Strava Labs issued since 2015 encoded over six time more data, and promised a degree of precision that was never even imagined before, notably including correction for GPS distortions and possibilities of new privacy settings, in ways that amplified its ability to be seen as a tracking device most notably in those areas where the aggregate of Strava users was not so dense, first of all those military sites where American military and operatives were stationed and perhaps secretly engaged, but gave little thought to the day sharing app installed on their Fitbits or iPhones, and may even have seen the data-sharing function as a source of comfort of belonging to a larger exercise community.

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Filed under data aggregation, data maps, data visualization, information economy, state secrets

Mapping Radiation Levels: Toward a Vigilante Cartography or a Model of Data-Sharing?

Few maps rely entirely on self-reported measurements today:  the data-rich basis of maps make poor controls on data an early modern throwback.  But the ability to transmit datasets to the internet from local devices has changed all that.  The recent proliferation of radioactivity maps are based on the open sourcing of self-reported measurements to form a new picture, placing information taken with Geiger counters into a framework analogous to a template borrowed from Google Maps.  Although the only instrument to register radiation’s presence is a Geiger counter, and no standards have been developed for representing the rises in radiation counts in different regions–or indeed the limits of danger to personal health–the provision of such a map is crucial to disseminating any information about a potential future disaster.  While the three reactor that released radiation in the Fukushima meltdown created the largest release of radiation into the atmosphere, the mapping of this release of 300 tons of radioactive waste reported to be spewing from the reactors as they cooled into the Pacific Ocean may have slipped off the radar of daily news, but on the internet may have become the greatest environmental disaster we’ve encountered, increasing the demand and need to map it, and raising questions of its relation to the massive die-offs of Pacific starfish, herring,

By using the internet  to upload and broadcast shifting radiation levels, the flexibility of maps of radiation levels gain a new flexibility and readability through the platform of Google Maps can instantaneously register ambient radiation in air, earth, water, or rainfall, as well as the radioactivity of food, in striking visualizations of geographic space.  This came to a head in the maps that were made to respond to the threats of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred on March 2011, and the spread of radiation from the explosion across the Pacific that remind us of how wind and the medium of ocean waters distributed plumes of radioactive waste over time, as radioactive materials from the meltdown of three reactors were falsely imagined to have spread across most all of the Pacific rapidly–



Hoax Projection of radioactive plume from Fusushima Daichi Plant


–and even extending into parts of the Atlantic ocean, in ways that generated considerable panic as a density of radioactive waste moved toward the bucolic seas of Hawai’i–as if to create a sense of the terror of the contamination of the natural setting by radioactive plumes.

There was a sense that the natural disaster could be recorded in real-time, reflecting the extent to which Google Maps had changed our expectations for the mappability of global phenomena, and the visibility of fears of global contamination that could be registered and recorded as a real-time apocalypse as everyone could be their own prophet of the end of times on the platform that it allowed.




image.pngEarth First! (March 2012)


The news ecology itself seem to have shifted, indeed, as what was undeniably an environmental disaster with potential  global import if not an event with potentially massive environmental consequences was played down in the mainstream media and by science reporting agencies, in ways that led alternative media to promulgate all the more alarmist narratives of radioactive fish off the United States, die-offs of seafood, and radiations on beaches in California and Oregon and the image that the pristine seawaters of Hawai’i had become a sort of epicenter where all radioactive waste had accumulated and come to rest, as if to confirm the extent of technological disaster.


Dispersion of Fukishima 2012


The maps suggested a sense of atmospheric proximity revealed in radioactive plumes, to be sure, that generated multiple fake maps, designed as forms of fear-mongering to accentuate the proximity of radiation in the environment, using an undated map with the NOAA seal to suggest the spread of something from Japan–and folks assumed it was radioactive, given the climate online–although it was in fact a map  measuring effects of a March 11 2011  tsunami, provoked by the Tohoku earthquake on wave height and he communication of wave-energy across the Pacific–perhaps more of interest to surfers than those fearing fallout.




For the explosion created huge challenges for mapping a sense of global radiological risk, far transcending any place or the site of its explosion:  the greatest levels of radiation were far removed from the site of the disaster, at the same time as the contamination on the ground, where radioactive deposits were far more intense in relation to geographical proximity.  Despite the far broader time-lapse required for the radioactive plume to travel by ocean currents across the Pacific–here shown after two and a half years–based on water samples taken in 2013, which, if far lower than limits in drinking water at 1 Becquerels/cubic meter, were projected to peak to 5 in 2015-16–far less than you might eat in a banana, or experience in a dental x-ray.



Discontinuities trumped continuities, however, in the levels of Cesium 134–the isotope that was the fingerprint of the Dai-ichi explosion–confirmed the extent of the diffusion of radioactive isotopes linked to the Fukushima reactor, by 2015, contaminated not only Canadian salmon, as tracked at the University of Victoria, but spread across much of the Pacific ocean, leaving an incredible intensity of the fingerprint isotope linked to Fukushima Dai-ichi–Cesium-134–in offshore waters, which perhaps recirculated in the Alaskan gyre, and the radioactive plume was projected to reach American shores some 1,742 days after it was released.





If still detectable in shellfish sampling as well as salmon, in 2015, the dispersion of radiation made a delayed landfall to the Pacific coast in late 2016, much as the arrival of isotopes across the Pacific was recorded–raising questions of the travel by water of Cesium across the Pacific.





The air dosages of radiation immediately around Fukushima Daiichi suggest a dangerous level of radiation on the mainland, however, apparently confirmed in the growth of thyroid cancer, especially in children, birth defects, and the retention of Cesium 134 in power station workers who show an incidence of leukemia–


Air Dose rate Fukushima Daiichi.png

and a rise in thyroid cancer in California that follow no distinct geographical pattern–but may be due to pesticides, agricultural contamination, or other waste.

An assembly of multiple static and dynamic maps might assemble an otherwise ‘hidden map’ of local levels of radiation, however, and to reveal or expose otherwise hidden local dangers populations face from radiation leaks.  The notion of a shared database in cases of eventual emergency that can be regularly updated online suggested a way of monitoring and reacting to panic levels of the dispersion of radiation from the nuclear explosion, and indeed to measure the unclear relation between proximity to a blast and the intensity of remaining radiation and radioactive dangers.

Although the measurements of danger are debated by some, mapping radiation levels provides a crucial means to confront meltdowns, the breaching of chambers’ walls, or leaks, and to define limits of danger in different regions.   Interestingly, the map stands in inverse relation to the usual mapping of human inhabitation: rath er than map sites of habitation or note, it tracks or measures an invisible site of danger as it travels under varied environmental influences in ways hard to predict or track.  Although the notion of what such a disaster would be like to map has been hypothetical–and is, to an extent, in datasets like the National Radiation Map, which use the Google Earth platform or available GIS templates to diffuse information not easily accessible.  This is a huge improvement over the poor state of information at the time of the threatened rupture of the containment structure of the Three Mile Island in Harrisburg PA in 1978, when no sources had a clear of what radius to evacuate residents around the plant, or how to best serve health risks:  if a radius of 10 miles was chosen in 1978, the Chernobyl disaster required a radius of over the double.  The clean up of the plant went on from 1980 to 1993; within a 10 mile radius, high radiation levels continued in Harrisburg today.

The larger zones that were closed around the more serious and tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that in fact exploded in April 1986 led to a clear Zone of alienation that was evacuated three days after the explosion, and considerable fear of the diffusion of radioactive clouds born in the environment to Europe and North America.  The irregular boundary of immediate contamination, including pockets of radiation hotspots not only in Belarus, but in Russia and  the Ukraine suggest limited knowledge of the vectors of contamination, and imprecise measurements.


This raised a pressing question:  how to render what resists registration or simple representation–and even consensus–on a map?  And is this in any way commensurate with the sorts of risks that maps might actually try to measure?

The tragic occurrence of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown raised similar questions, but converged with a new basis to define an internet-based map of the region.  If the incident provided a case-in-point instance of ready demand for maps, the availability of a large number of online access in the region led to a considerable improvisation with the value of a crowd-sourced map not defined the local government or nuclear authorities, but by the inhabitants of the region who demanded such a map.  The accident that resulted from the tsunami no doubt contributed to a resurgence and perfecting of the crowd-sourced map both in the United States and, in  a more flexible way, Japan, as websites try to refine the informative nature carried in radiation maps to create an informative response by open-access maps that can quickly register the consequences of nuclear disaster–or indeed detect such a leak or structural compromise–in the age of the internet, and offer a reassuring image (or a cautionary image) adequate to meet with the invisible and intangible diffusion of radiation in the local or regional environment.

Demand for such online databases reveal and feed upon deeper fears of an official failure to share such data.  Indeed, the drive to create a map of some authority has dramatically grown in the light of recent radiation disasters that have not been mapped earlier, in part because of liability issues and because of fears that government protection of the nuclear industry has compromised their own responsibility.  If the growth of online sites is a sensible and effective use of data-sourcing on an open platform created by internet providers, it is also one no doubt fed by a paranoid streak in the American character stoked most heavily these days by folks on the Right.  I’ve decided to look at two examples of these maps below, both to reflect on the nature of a crowd-sourced map and to suggest the plusses and minuses of their use of a GIS framework to visualize data.

The emphasis on the map as a shared database and resource to monitor and publicize the sensitive information about radiation levels has unsurprisingly increased by the recent threat of contaminated waters that breached the containing walls during the meltdown of the Daichi-Fukushima reactor in March 2011, and also of the difficulties that providing a reliable map of radiation creates:  although reactors are licensed by governments and monitored by government agencies, debates about the public dangers that reactors pose concern both the danger levels of radiation and the ability to collect exact data about their spatial distribution, and communication through waters, air, and other environmental vectors.  The ability to upload such measurements directly to data-sharing platforms provides a new access for the relatively low-cost creation of maps that can be shared online among a large group of people in regularly updated formats.  Given the low-cost of accumulating a large data-set, Safecast concentrated on devising a variety of models to visualize distributions along roads or by interpolating variations in existing maps.

The group-sourced website showing regional and local fluctuations are not visually or cartographically inventive, but pose questions about using data feeds to reveal a hidden topography, as it were, of radiation across the country or landscape–as if to remedy the absence of an open-access trustworthy source of this information local governments would sponsor or collate.  Against a field that notes the sites of reactors by standard hazard-signs that designate active reactors, viewers can consult fluctuating readings in circled arabic numbers to compare the relative intensity measured at each reporting monitor station.  While rudimentary, and without adjustments or standardized measurements, this is an idea with legs:  the Safecast Project proposes to take mapping radiation in the environment along a crowd-sourced model–an example of either a pluralization of radical cartography or a radical cartography that has morphed into a crowd-sourced or “vigilante” form of mapping radiation levels.

Safecast wants to create a “global sensor network” with the end of “collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments.”  Its implicit if unspoken message of “Cartography to the People!”  echoes a strain in American skepticism, if not paranoia, about information access, and fear of potential radioactive leaks–in a counter-mapping of USGS topographic surveys, the movement to generate such composite maps on the internet is both an exciting dimension of crowd-sourced cartographical information, and a potentially destabilizing moment of the authority of the map, or a subversion of its authority as an image produced by a single state.

The interesting balance between authority and cartography is in a sense built into the crowd-sourced model that is implied the “global sensor network” that Safecast corporation wants to construct:  while not readily available in maps on access to government-sponsored sites, those interested in obtaining a cartographical record of daily shifting relative radioactive danger can take things into their own hands with a handy App.

The specific “National Radiation Map” at RadiationNetwork.com aims at “depicting environmental radiation levels across the USA, updated in real-time every minute.”  They boast:  “This is the first web site where the average citizen (or anyone in the world) can see what radiation levels are anywhere in the USA at any time.”  As impressive are the numbers of reactors that dot the countryside, many concentrated on the US-Canadian border by the Great Lakes, as in Tennessee or by Lake Michigan.  Although a credible alert level is  100, it’s nice to think that each circle represents some guy with a Geiger counter, looking out for the greater good of his country.  The attraction of this DIY cartography of inserting measurements that are absent from your everyday Google Map or from the Weather Channel is clear:  self-reporting gives a picture of the true lay of the radioactive land, one could say.  This is a Jeffersonian individual responsibility of the citizen in the age of uploading one’s own GPS-determined measurements; rather than depending on surveying instruments, however, readings from one’s own counters are uploaded to the ether from coordinates that are geotagged for public consumption.

Of course, there’s little level of standard measurements here, as these are all self-reported based on different models and designs–they list the fifteen acceptable models on the site–in order to broadcast their own data-measurements or “raw radiation counts,” which makes the map of limited scientific reliability and few controls.  So while the literally home-made nature of the map has elements of a paranoid conspiracy–as most any map of nuclear reactors across the country would seem to–the juxtaposition of trefoil radiation hazard signs against the bucolic green backdrop oddly renders it charmingly neutral at the same time:  the reactors are less the point of the map than the radiations levels around them.


USA map radioactivity


But the subject that is mapped is anything but reassuring.  When we focus on one region, the density of self-reported sites gains a finer grain in the Northeast, we can see the concentration of hazard signs noting reactors clustering around larger inhabited areas, oddly, like the ring around New Jersey, just removed from New York, the nuclear reactors in the triangle of Tennessee and Virginia, or those outside of Chicago and in Iowa, and one sees a somewhat high reading near Harrisburg PA.  But it’s reassuring that a substantial number of folks were using their Geiger counters at that moment, and inputting data into this potentially useful but probably also potentially paranoid site.  I hope they do interview them beforehand, given the very divergent readings at some awfully proximate sites.




If we go to a similarly dense network on the West Coast, the folks at Mineralab offer a similar broad spread among those informants, and the odd location of so many reactors alongside rivers–no doubt using their waters for cooling, but posing potential risks of downriver contamination at the same time.



Although the view of Southern California is perhaps still more scary, and reminds us that the maps have not taken time to denote centers of population:




And there’s a charming globalism to this project. Things aren’t particularly worse off in the USA in terms of the reliance on reactors, if we go to Europe, where reporters are similarly standing vigilant with Geiger counters at the ready given the density of those familiar trefoil hazard signs in the local landscape:




The truly scary aspect of that map is the sheer distribution of reactors, no doubt, whose hazard signs that dot the countryside like scary windmills or danger signs.  And, just to put in perspective the recent tsunami that leaked radioactive waste and waters from the Fukushima reactor whose walls it breached, sending material waste and leaching radioactive waters to California’s shores, consider Japan.  An impressive range of reactors dot the countryside, and but one vigilant reporter in Sapporo notes the very low levels of radiation that reach his counter:




Withe a week after the March 11, 2011 earthquake hit Japan, the greatest to ever hit Japan, Safecast was born as a volunteer group dedicated to open-platform radiation monitoring in the country and worldwide; in addition to over 15880 dead in the Tsunami and quake, the tsunami caused level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, necessitating evacuating hundreds of thousands of residents, as at least three nuclear reactors exploded due to hydrogen gas that breached outer containment buildings after cooling system failure.   When residents were asked to evacuate who dwelled within a 20 km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the United States government urged American citizens evacuate who lived within a radius up to 80 km (50 mi) of the plant to evacuate.  This rose questions about the dispersal of radiation from the plant, and deeper questions arose about the safety of returning within a set zone, or the need to demarcate an no-entry zone around the closed plant.

The rapid measurement of radiation distributions not only gained wide demand but provided as of July 2012, Safecast includes some 3,500,000 data points that collect radiation levels, and provided a new mode of sharing information about dangerous levels of radiation.  In ways that capitalize on how the internet allows a massive amount of data to be uploaded from numerous points around the world, Safecast exploits a model of data-sharing on its open platform, offering different models to visualize their relation to each other:  Safecast allows the possibility to visualize the maps against a road-map, topographic map, and map of local population distributions, so that they can better understand their relation to the readings that they’ve collated on line.

The process of massing data is what makes Safecast such a pioneer in creating a large range of readings that can promise a more comprehensive picture of radiation distribution than the uneven distributions that isolated readers might allow.  The Safecast team hopes and promises to improve upon their readings by designing and promoting a new Geiger counter, and has made available the handy workhorse bGeigie, although the cost of $1000/apiece and the time-consuming nature of their assembly is a major obstacle they’re trying to confront. The smaller and handier Geigier Nano Kit creates a dandy device you can easily carry, affix to your car, and whose measurements are easily uploaded to the Safecast website:




The DIY glee of presenting the tool to measure radiation levels with one’s own mini-Geiger is part of the excitement with which Safecast promises to provide a new map of Japan’s safely habitable land.  The excitement also derives from a belief in the possibility of “empowering” people to measure and compile data about their environments, rather than trust a map that is assembled by “experts” or official sources who have not been that forthcoming with data-measurements by themselves.  The above smile also reflects the vertiginous success of Safecast in distributing its bGeigei, and the boast to have amassed an open-sourced database for open access.

This seems the new key to revealing knowledge in the multiple visualizations that Safecast offers for viewers:  with the enthusiasm of great marketing, their website announces with some satisfaction: “attach it to your car and drive around collecting geo-tagged radiation data easily uploaded to Safecast via our API upload page.” This suggest a whole other idea of a road trip, or even of a vacation, in the multiple ‘road-maps’ that volunteers have uploaded for approval on the Safecast site, with over 10,000 data points deriving from bGeigei imports, that Safecast can readily convert to a map:

Tokyo traffic Safequest


This is also quite serious stuff, taking crowd-sourced cartography to a new degree:  with some 4,000,000 radiation points detected by the Safecast team, the website is able to assemble a comprehensive map of relatively uniform readings, complimenting the sites of radioactivity assembled and culled by the Japanese government with their own independent data from an impressive range of aggregate feeds of environmental data from several NGOs and individual observers across Japan’s coast:



The image of such aggregate data feeds allowed Yahoo! Japan to build their own map displaying the static sensor data of Safecast:

Yahoo Japan feeds

Kailin Kozhuharov has created a detailed map to visualize the distribution of radiation levels in the island through the Safecast database:

 Kozhuharov Visualization of Radiation Levels


The coverage is truly impressive, and multiplication of data points technically unlimited and potentially comprehensive. While divergent readings may be entered every so often as a Geiger counter wears down or malfunctions, controls are built into the system. An example of the coverage in Japan, again the focus of mapping radioactivity in the wake of the recent Fukushima disaster, where Safecast is based, using locally obtained data once again:


Safecast Japan


The widespread appeal of this device, even more than the Radiation Network, reveals the widespread nature of a belief or suspicion–no doubt with some grounds or justification–that a true map of the dangers or levels of radiation is in fact never already provided or available to citizens, and that the failure of governments of communicating an accurate mapping of radiation demands a privatized response.  And with its partnership with Keio University, developed after Fukushima, Safeguard has developed the “Scanning the Earth” (STE) project that maps the historical data of radiation readings across the globe.  With the Fukushima prefecture, Safecast has also issued a comprehensive global mapping of the dispersal of high levels of radioaction from Fukushima from its own massive database to chart the impact of the environmental disaster over time:


Fukushima Prefecture World Map

Although this map reflect the ties to the MIT Media Lab, it is informed by a dramatically new local awareness of the importance to create a map flexible enough to incorporated locally uploaded data measurements for open access.  It is also a great example of how an event can create, provoke, or help to generate a new sense of how maps can process the relation of local phenomenon to the global in a variety of readily viewable formats.  The demand for creating this world map clearly proceeded from the local event of the 2011 Tsunami, Safecast was at a position to observe the importance of maintaining an open-sourced database (now including some 2,500,000 readings) that offer an unprecedented basis for developing a platform of data-sharing that is readily available online.  In working with the same databases, they also offer some cool visualizations of the data that they collect to illustrate differentials radiation levels in readable ways linked to potential dangers to individual health:

Fukushima?  Safecast

The new facility that the internet has created in the ability to upload, share, and compile information from diverse and multiple sites without considerable costs has meant so lowered the cost of collaboration that it can occur without any reference or dependence on a central governmental authority. This has allowed the compilation of an immense amount of simultaneous data to be regularly uploaded and stored with almost no extra cost from a group of volunteers and to be available in transparent ways on an open-access platform.  (Late in updating this post, I came across an earlier PBS NewsHour episode on Safecast’s interest in data-collection in the wake of the disaster, and the demand of local residents in Japan for further data, given the silence of official government sources on the disaster and its dangers:

(The episode offers great data on using Geiger counters to detect radiation levels at multiple sites near the exclusion zone that rings the reactor, including a restaurant parking lot.)

The means for offering locally contributions to a world map of radiation level distributions reveal an expanded ability to share information in a map the relation of place to environmental disasters.  Indeed, the map itself foregrounds new graphical forms of information-sharing.  There are clear problems with the Safecast model that Japan, in fact, is likely to be an exception to:  Japan was a place providing access to large numbers of its population already in 2003, offering free wi-fi in trains, airports, and cafés or tea houses.  In comparison, the far more limited numbers of the population have access to wi-fi or online resources in rural American towns, or even in urban areas, would make access questions less possible in the United States, where a similar movement has failed to expand not only because of the lack of a disaster of similar proportions.  There is the danger that the “freedom of information” they champion is in the end not as openly accessible as one would wish:  if roughly one quarter of hotspots worldwide are in the United States, it shared with China and Italy the lowest number of hotspots per person, at lower than 3 per person as of 2007, while Japan had nearly 30 million 3G connections.  This creates a significant obstacle to the expansion of the internet as a universal access service outside urban areas with municipal wireless networks, despite the significant plans to expand internet access on interstates.  Despite plans to expand free service zones in Asia, Canada, and parts of the Americas, the broadcasting of regional variations in a natural disaster would be limited.

There may be something oddly scary that Safecast has had its own corporate profile and successful Kickstarter campaign, marking the privatization of the sort of public traditions of cartography formerly undertaken by states for their own populations to devolve to the private sphere.  For whereas we have in the past treated cartographical records as an accepted public good, there is limited acceptance of accessible data collection and synthesis.  As a result, one seems more dependent on the active participation in one’s construction of a more accurate of radiation levels, or upon a network of vigilant vigilante cartographers who can upload data from wi-fi zones.  Is there the risk of a disenfranchisement of a larger population, or is data-sharing the best available option?

An alternative model for mapping radiation might be proposed in the compelling map of the oceanic travel of radiation (probably in contaminated waters, but also in physical debris) that has been suggested by vividly compelling cartographical simulations of the dispersal of the long-term dispersal of Cesium 137 (137CS) from waters surrounding the Fukushima reactor.  Although the map is indeed terrifyingly compelling, in relying only on oceanic currents to trace the slow-decaying tracer across the Pacific, the video map seems to arrogate capacities of measuring the dispersal over the next ten years of radioactive material in ocean waters with a degree of empiricism that it does not in fact have.  How ethical is that?


For all the beauty of the color-spectrum map of a plume of radiation expanding across ocean waters–and the value of its rhetorical impact of strikingly linking us directly to the reactor’s meltdown–its projected charting of the plume of contaminated waters due to reach the waters of the United States during 2014, if normal currents continue, is far less accurate or communicative than it would seem.  To be sure, as the Principal Investigator and oceanographer Vincent Rossi, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems in Spain, “In 20 years’ time, we could go out, grab measurements everywhere in the Pacific and compare them to our model.”  But for now, this expanding miasma offers an eery reminder of the threat of widespread circulation of radioactive materials worldwide.



Indeed, the charts that project the spread of radiation over a period of five years, benefitting from the power of computer simulations to map by tracer images the diffusion of radioactive discharge along clear contour lines in the Atlantic, provide a compelling chart of how we might want to look and measure the levels of radioactivity in our national waters.


tracer image of radiation from Fukushima


Filed under Chernobyl, disaster maps, Fukushima, radiation maps, Vigilante Cartography