Public Lab Research note

The Evolution and Revolution of Sensor Journalism

by ElliotFriar | February 23, 2016 19:24 23 Feb 19:24 | #12723 | #12723

Sensor journalism is a fascinating new concept gaining interest in journalistic and scientific scholarly discussions, with the potential for revolutionary impact as a vital facet of both industries and professions. In her presentation, scholar Lily Bui defined a sensor as “something that reacts predictively to the environment and can measure some aspect of it.” Bui affirmed these things that react and measure variables in environments do not have to be technological or completely quantifiable, with human anatomy technically considered to fit the definition of sensors. Through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling, your eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, and skin nerves are all measuring the environment. This information is processed and measured with cognitive function, where your brain uses past experiences to process and derive meaning from the situation. Through this definition, it could be argued that any and all journalism is sensor journalism. Journalists use their eyes when they conduct research, ears when conducting in person interviews, and other features of anatomy and aspects of senses when completing reporting tasks. This information is measured as data, processed as thought, and culminates into a journalistic piece, whether it be digital video, a small article, or a long form opinion editorial. Beyond this, Bui describes the use of external sensors with measurements adding to the storytelling function of journalists as sensor journalism: “Using sensors to generate data around journalistic inquiry.” The emergence of sensor journalism coincides with and has been accelerated by the new era of data-driven journalism, according to the Tow Center For Digital Journalism’s report on sensor journalism. “We are in an era in which reporters are hungry for data, and increasingly expert in using it; in an age when sensing technology is developing radically and permeating every aspect of modern life.” These two trends in the current media and technological landscape do not just coexist, but have combined to create an intersection of science and journalism to create more enriching, impactful, and informative stories. With this intersection of science and journalism, the role of the journalist is brought into question. Journalists collecting data through sensors are effectively conducting and executing functions of science, and reporting their results through media that has true impact. As discussed within the data journalism realm, journalists should be completely transparent and open when practicing sensor journalism. Just as journalists should make the data sets they acquire and analyze for data journalism pieces available for public use, analysis, and criticism, they should also make data collected from their own sensor journalism efforts public for the same reasons and ethical considerations. Additionally, it is important to remain transparent with the methodology used in collecting data (type of sensor, how data was aggregated, etc.) and confidence in any numbers that have the potential for impact on mass culture or public policy. If this complete transparency and open-data approach is taken appropriately and ethically with sensor journalism, it should be considered appropriate, ethical, and even expected for the journalist to wear the proverbial hat of scientist when required for telling stories. In our data visualization class, we used an open-source design provided and made public by Public Lab to create a relatively affordable and easy-to-make water sensor. This sensor was created with the purpose of measuring conductivity of water, alluding to the existence of other chemical particles in the water other than pure hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The sensors we built and utilized used audible frequency to, in a sense, measure the conductivity of the water samples, which included water from taps in different locations, bottled water, and water from bodies of water including the Charles River, puddles, and various ponds across the city of Boston. With our sensors, high conductivity was translated and measured in some capacity by the level of audible frequency. This knowledge and ability to sense and measure the conductivity of water with sensors may seem to allow for some meaning to be extracted from our small experiment. But, there are many other variables influencing the validity of these supposed measurements. For example, the audio displayed was immeasurable, with no opportunity to quantitatively identify the conductivity measurements. Other scientific and methodological variables are important to take into consideration as well, including the influence of water temperature on conductivity, the absence of a conductivity standard, the consistency of and method of collecting samples, etc. Interfering variables such as this make the sensor data unreliable, unscientific, and virtually void of any value for any factual journalistic purposes. Notably, even if all scientific precautions are taken to create the most reliable data sets, there is still potential for misinformation or incorrect correlation. Conductivity measures impurity of water, which could be considered to be a negative quality. But, as discovered in our experiment, the sensor reported a high audible frequency (translating to a high conductivity measurement) for Evian branded bottled water, confirming the hypothesis of Evian branded bottled water including minerals making the water “impure.” This impurity is not negative, and is actually marketed to have health benefits by the bottled water company. In contrast, when water from the Charles River measured as a highly conductive solution with our sensors, we used subjectivity and historical context to infer the water was either negatively impure or came from salinity. But, there was no information provided other than subjective beliefs and context to confirm the Charles River water did not include the same beneficial minerals as the Evian water. Although our assertions and assumptions in this particular case are more credible, these questions should be greatly considered in more complex, important, and scientific cases of sensor journalism. While the professions of science and journalism begin to merge, the emergence of another modern journalism trend should be included in the discussion as a third role. In the modern era of journalism, citizen journalism has emerged with advancements of technology, the internet, and social media. Mashable defines citizen journalism as “public citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information.” Citizens now play an important and highly active role in discourse on all topics, with their contributions being widely used in traditional media publications as credible sources. As a relatively new trend in journalism, citizen journalism is beginning to play a critical role in sensor journalism. Public Lab leverages these trends in their ambitious mission, to change how people see the world in environmental, social, and political terms through using inexpensive do-it-yourself techniques in a community of scholars and, most importantly, citizens. Public Lab aims to make designs for sensors, including the sensors created to measure water conductivity, available for everyone online, inexpensive to supply, and easy to execute. This mission is essentially crowdsourcing data for sensor journalistic purposes, providing collaboratively created data sets to use as a basis for advocacy. Opportunity for new data insights and stories becomes widely expansive when considering the power of millions of citizens equipped with the ability to create sensors and collect data on a mass scale. This revolutionary, progressive concept, motivated by Public Lab and greatly supported by the Knight Foundation, has the potential to change journalism, public policy, and the world on a scope not entirely predictable or conceivable. Public Lab’s work to democratize data and sensor journalism is important, but also includes limitations. The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in particular, provides an interesting and insightful model to exemplify and demonstrate both the affordances and limitations of this democratization model. As discussed in class, Public Lab’s sensor-citizen journalism model could be applied to the measurement of lead levels and other toxins in government provided water sources across the country. Through the lens of the Flint crisis, and information and research conclusions from past studies, a journalist or scientist can hypothesize that communities with disproportionate populations of low-income people of color are more likely to have higher levels of lead and other toxins in their tap water. Public Lab’s open-sourcing of designs and assistance in creating sensors to measure toxins in water is a crucial step towards collecting this type of data set, but providing the knowledge and do-it-yourself opportunity to create these sensors does not acknowledge other external limitations. In the case of testing water in communities across the countries through this democratization model, ability to create these sensors goes beyond the hurdle of knowledge. Monetary and labor costs are also required for the individual to participate, and those living in communities most impacted by unsafe drinking water are less likely to have disposable income and free time to take part in this data collection collaboration. The project would be working to identify and advocate for the societally marginalized and disenfranchised, while inversely not allowing those individuals to participate in the process. Sensor journalism is an exciting new facet within the journalism industry, offering the opportunity for better storytelling and increasing clout to aid advocacy and influence public policy. Public Lab’s important work to democratize data collection by leveraging the trend of citizen journalism has revolutionary potential, while also embodying limitations that should be acknowledged. The role of the journalist continues to evolve, with the amalgamation of science and journalism signaling to a potentially bright future for the profession with a whole new dimension of opportunity. Journalists have always technically used sensors, like their eyes and ears, to create compelling stories. With the availability of more technologically advanced sensors to quantify data, and the opportunity for more than just the scientist or the journalist to become involved, the possibilities for journalistic storytelling are starting to become optimistically endless and more impactful than ever before.


This is a great summary of sensor journalism, a topic that has puzzled me for a while. Selecting, assembling, deploying, and monitoring sensors, as well as summarizing, interpreting, and presenting the data they collect is a scientific pursuit. Without some appreciation for the pitfalls and assumptions associated with making scientific observations, results could do more harm than good. This summary alludes to these problems. If journalists have scientific experience or training, making scientific observations can be another journalistic tool. If not, maybe relying on qualified people to do it is a better idea.

Journalists don't have to examine patients to report on health and medicine. They don't have to run for office to report on politics. They don't have to hammer nails to report on the housing business. Most journalists would do poorly at these tasks. Why do they suddenly think they can and should do science?

Don't get me started on why "citizens" think they can suddenly be scientists. Sheesh.


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