Last Wednesday, as I worked from home I watched the talking heads on various news channels continue to repeat the same news nugget from the Japan crisis throughout the day. This began around 8:30am and continued till I was ready to fall asleep in the evening. I'm a news junkie. I'm also a data junkie. The 24-hour news cycle does not afford one the luxury of the other.
News outlets aren't capable of reporting multiple points of data in a quick and efficient manner. I wanted more than infographics, diagrams, and looped videos of the tsunami. I wanted to know how much radiation was affecting the various parts of Japan. I wanted to know if there were better photos of reactor 4, and as a resident of Portland, Oregon, I wanted to hear an extended academic discussion with various points of view about the possibility of radiation reaching the west coast. Talking heads telling me that there was nothing to worry only made me wonder more. What were the criteria for me to be concerned? At what point should an event in Japan trigger a response from me in Portland? And what was the amount of time in between the two? Was it seven days or 36 hours? Did the radiation need to get into the lower atmosphere, or would ground radiation reach us on the west coast? And why did the US Navy move their ships that were hundreds of miles away from Japan?
I decided to channel this near-paranoia (my friends would say definite paranoia) into something positive. I wanted to gather all the information that the talking heads did not have time to talk about. I wanted to create a site so simple and easy to use that it would allow anyone the ability to check and see if all things were clear. And I wanted to invite experts to participate in the analysis and debate of such data.
I drew two simple sketches and sent them to David. I asked him - "can we do this?" - not as a question of technical scope but more of a gut-check against my continued near-paranoia. He was jazzed. Later that evening, we had our first designs. We met with our development team the next morning. We jammed on the technical details needed to build this site. We thought there was something noble to the notion of having people purchase their own detection devices and post data. The word crowdsourced has been used to describe this. We started building a database to capture this data. I jumped into the research of the half-dozen radiation units and what they meant. That was Thursday.
On Friday, my research and inquiries led me to some really awesome people. My friend Surj introduced me to Aaron Huslage, an NC-based sys-admin / disaster relief specialist. We've nicknamed him "The Great Enabler" as he's introduced us to about a dozen altruistic people connected to even more people. (Half the list of the Thank You credits on RDTN.org came via Aaron). In our discussions, we realized we needed more than crowdsourced data. We needed to pull in feeds of data already being generated. Others out there were doing this, but not in a centralized fashion.
Pivot point. It wasn't about crowdsourcing. It was about aggregating, validating, and analyzing.
On Saturday we launched. Sean Bonner and Joi Ito tweeted and wrote about the site. It took off and we realized a couple of mistakes in our database queries and units, which we fixed asap. It has taken off since, introducing me to amazing people throughout the world. Engineers in Germany are helping us source our feeds. Some hackers in Russia are offering us up data. This morning, I woke up at 7am (early for me) and Skyped with a scientist in Tokyo who is helping provide feeds, data, translations and analysis. Others have followed suit.
We are half-way through aggregating. We have more feeds to add. Up next is validating and analyzing. And a kickstarter project to get some home-brewed detection devices out to Japan and the west coast of the US. 72 hours from concept to launch. 48 hours since launch. Countless people to thank, and tens of thousands of visitors from over 130 countries. Not a single ad dollar spent. This is product development, and this is the happiest I've been in a really long time.
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