Public Lab Research note

Sense, Sensibility, and Sensor Journalism

by Tscannell | February 23, 2015 18:10 23 Feb 18:10 | #11628 | #11628

Journalism is all about collecting information and weeding through that information to tell a story. But as times have changed, the art of journalism has also had to adapt and change. And with the rise of technology in our every-day society, new opportunities arise. A new kind of data-driven journalism movement has erupted. Sensor journalism.

Sensor journalism is the method of collecting or generating data from sensors, and then interpreting and using that data to tell a story. It is not about scraping data that already exists, but about creating your own data. According to Kelly Tyrrell ,sensor journalism is slowing turning journalists into scientists one data point at a time. She states, “sensor journalism is the first cousin of data journalism,” and each field of work shares many similarities.

“Like science, journalism lays a discerning eye on the tough questions. Like science, there is a quest to answer those questions fully, completely, without bias or inaccuracy,” says Tyrrell. As journalists we never quite become “the expert” within our work, we just reference them. But within sensor journalism, journalists can now become that expert with what they are reporting.

Collecting data with sensors gives a new promise and a new set of tools for storytelling journalistically. Sensor journalism presents more truth and transparency. It creates more data that is not generated by government or slanted private parties. Sensor journalism gives journalists a more accountable platform to work on.

In Lily Bui's presentation to our Data Visualization class, she created a strong discussion on the possibilities of sensor-collecting data becoming a more integrated part of our every-day lives. She pointed out the improvements of wearable technologies like Google Glass, or the FitBit, Jawbone, and more. These small devices can piece together what we like or need by collecting data of what we are up to day by day. She made a solid conclusion that sensor journalism should soon have the ability to shift from reporting on our environment to much deeper issues.

Patrick Herron’s presentation to our class about his work with the MyRWA’s water quality monitoring program shows where sensor journalism is now, and the endless possibilities it has in the future. Herron’s work with data collection through the network has raised awareness about discharges that pollute the Mystic River and other resources in its watershed. With data collection more easily available to the Mystic River Watershed Association, it lead them to conclude that an influx of water chestnuts in the river was coming from certain pollutants being dumped into its water mass yearly.

In the Tow/Knight Report the Public Lab’s use of sensors during the BP oil spill shows the expansive possibilities sensor journalism can grow to. Photographers weren’t able to take picture of the shoreline so Public Lab used weather balloons to capture images in which they then stitched together to see where the oil had spread. Public Lab’s balloon mapping kit is available for communities to take aerial photos for community mapping of spaces and identifying environmental hazards. Sensors can collect any type of data from anywhere, from water chestnuts to major oil spills. Sensor journalism provides the ability to collect data from multiple areas while remaining in one place.

Also in Bui’s presentation she pointed out how both scientific research and journalistic endeavor begin with the same thing: a question. In Bui’s blog she explains how for both science and journalism, crowdsourcing data allows the public to actively contribute to finding answers. Many citizen scientists are non-experts, but still share an avid interest in science. According to Bui Journalists need to find ways to use crowdsourced data to contextualize and enrich stories rather than relying on them as a primary means of telling.

This raises persistent questions about the quality and reliability of sensor journalism. Bui states on her blog, "the issue of data quality and sensor calibration comes up most frequently in discussions about putting sensors in the hands of people. It’s a fair concern, as distributed sensing often means less control over how the sensor is deployed, the context in which the data are collected, and how the data are reported." At the end of the day, we need to hold on to a certain level of skepticism to help advance current methods of crowdsourced data collection. The major flaw in sensor journalism at the moment is its verifiability. You must question the ethics behind it.

Is sensor journalism ethical? Can a journalist really report and collect his or her own data and still be unbiased and transparent in their storytelling. These are kinks that will need to be ironed out as sensor journalism advances into the future of reporting. In an article on O’Reilly Radar it says sensor journalism, "will augment a journalists ability to understand the world and hold governments accountable." And anyone looking to practice sensor journalism will face handfuls of interesting challenges, from incorrect conclusions based upon faulty data, to increased risks to journalists carrying the sensors, and to gaming or misreporting.

Sensor journalism will definitely provide a new way of fact checking for journalists, yet the room for error can be extremely harmful. Journalists may even face unexpected questions about protecting sources if their sensor data captures the movements or actions of a person of interest or a controversial situation. Also the manpower needed to track, and collect, and analyze, and configure such data will take a lot of energy and commitment that one journalist may not be able to complete alone. There are still many gray areas with sensor journalism and placing guidelines and regulations for this type of journalism is needed to make it most effective.

Although it will take a lot of time and patience for sensor journalism to grow into its finest potential, I believe sensor journalism will be a solid tool for journalists to use in the future, and will help take reporting to a new and exciting level.

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