Public Lab Research note

Sensor Journalism: Does it Succeed?

by Evan_bedell | February 22, 2015 23:39 22 Feb 23:39 | #11614 | #11614

The basic definition of sensor journalism is that it's the method of collecting data from sensors and then using that data to create and tell a story. The rise of sensor journalism has been in an upswing the past few years, with new technology and different ways of acquiring information and data being found and appreciated. While sensor journalism is still in its beginning stages, there are several opportunities and benefits that have arisen from its practice. However, with these opportunities also come a number of challenges.

The biggest opportunity that sensor journalism presents is that journalists and other members of society can use sensors to collect, sift through and interpret data. Sensors are tools that allow people to investigate what they can’t see, hear or touch, according to co-author of the Tow report Charles Berret.

These sensors allow for the use of storytelling by journalists, as they themselves can go out and collect data and dream up seemingly unimaginable story ideas. Journalists who knew that in previous occasions they could tell a story if they had a certain amount of data now can because of sensor journalism, says Matt White of Poynter.. I think that this is the biggest opportunity that arises from sensor journalism, because I myself have not been able to tell stories that I wished I could have due to the simple fact of not having enough data to use. I think everyone can speak on a time when they have gone to research something and have found that no substantial research or data on the subject matter is evident. Sensor journalism allows you to adopt a do it yourself approach and not have to rely on the data and accuracy of others.

Another opportunity that sensor journalism presents is crowdsourcing or letting people help collect data in their own local environment. The idea of crowdsourcing is not something new that sensor journalism came up with, but it is unique in its own right because it allows for a entire community to collect data. By having a greater number of people collect data in a certain location, a greater sense of the data as a whole can be formulated. Patrick Herron of the Mystic River Watershed Association even alluded to this fact, as he said that the same people usually show up to help with the setup, placing, and collection of data from the sensors in particular bodies of water. These “communities” that come from sensor journalism can also spur on others to get involved and raise the number of people participating in the crowdsourcing.

Sensor journalism also works as a way to monitor situations and environments that federal and local agencies might neglect. Data collected from the sensors can be used to alert these agencies of hazardous situations. Raised public awareness and a growing culture of civic engagement are other benefits that can arise from sensor journalism. An example of this is in Philadelphia, where a local station has a bi-weekly citizen science segment in partnership with a science site that focuses on projects connected to their broadcast region.

Despite the opportunities and benefits that come with sensor journalism, there are pitfalls that can occur. For example, using the data acquired from sensors should still be done in an ethical and skillful way according to Fergus Pitt. Due to the relative newness of sensor journalism, there aren’t exactly guidelines and rules in place that say what and how sensor journalism should be used. Therefore, the data collected from these sensors can be manipulated or biased. This leads to skepticism of sensor journalism by the general public. This alone is why journalists should be ethical in their decision-making regarding the data.

A journalist’s work also shouldn’t be based just on sensor journalism alone, but rather in collaboration with research and interviews, according to Pitt. For a story to have validity, there needs to be other factors in the story. An interesting aspect of sensor journalism that the Tow Center report found was that the public doesn’t respect the use of sensor devices unless there are appropriate restrictions. I believe that this shows the distrust the public has is not in the sensor devices, but rather in the way that the data from these devices is collected and used.

Another problem with sensor journalism is that the data collected from the sensors can simply be inaccurate. Due to the low cost and creation of the sensors, there can be discrepancies and errors in the data collected. While participating in the water conductivity workshop this was made evident, as the Coqui sensors and their readings were different each time the water and snowdrifts were tested. With a more polished and most likely more expensive sensor, the data readings would have been far more accurate and precise. Patrick Herron presented an example of a far more accurate device. While we had our coquis in use to test water conductivity, the data sensor that he brought took precise data readings due to it being far more expensive and also more carefully crafted.

The majority of people collecting the data from sensors also aren’t scientists or have degrees in the area of the data they are collecting. This leads to the challenge of making the argument that the data is legitimate or of quality. However, I don’t think that this should be a deterrent to sensor journalism because the data collected doesn’t needed to be interpreted, but only presented as data itself as a way of storytelling.

All in all, I think that in order for journalists to be able to tell stories with sensors, issues with inaccuracy and legitimacy would need to be fixed. Putting guidelines, regulations, and rules in place would be a good way to begin to navigate this issue and appease the uneasiness from the public. To me, this would be most effective way make sure the data collected is accurate and presented to the public in a fair, unbiased nature.

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