Public Lab Research note

My Two Cents on Sensor Journalism

by amandagomez93 | February 23, 2015 05:42 23 Feb 05:42 | #11618 | #11618

Sensor journalism takes data journalism a step further. Data journalism depends solely on existing data to carry a story; whereas, sensor journalism can potentially create real-time data for a story. Don’t have access because it’s closed data, or maybe the data just doesn’t exist? Sensor journalism could be the solution. The story possibilities seem infinite—at least, that’s how sensor journalism initially appeared to me. After having read the Tow Report on sensor journalism, heard journalist Lily Bui’s presentation on the subject, and experimented with sensors firsthand, I can’t help but be skeptical now. Though that’s not to say that it’s any less exciting, or that I object to working with sensor journalism completely. I’m just not as naive, I would say.

Hesitation is nothing but appropriate when approaching any emerging fields within journalism. I’m thinking now back to when Twitter was launched in 2006. Most newsrooms didn’t establish official guidelines for using Twitter until 2011. It took many newsrooms years to jump on board with the social media platform. The Los Angeles Times didn’t join Twitter until two years after its initial launch. Even today, some established New York Times staffers remain resistant when using Twitter for journalistic means. Nine years later, journalist have a better understanding on how to use Twitter more appropriately and ethically. I stress better but not completely because journalists still have a complicated relationship with Twitter. Questions inevitably still arise: Is citizen journalism on Twitter journalism? Can I share my personal opinions on my Twitter account? Is Twitter the appropriate medium to break news? Journalists remain skeptical, but quite frankly it’s a journalist’s job to do so. It’s also a journalist's job to recognize possibilities of telling a stories with the emergence of new technology. Even New York Times writer Dean Baquet recognized that he deserved criticism for his graveyard Twitter account. Twitter is a tool that journalists should question, but also experiment with—just as sensor journalism should be.

Sensor journalism presents quite the opportunities for exploration. Specifically, I would note the potential relationship journalists can build with potential sources when crowd-sourcing. Old school journalists would tell you, like my former Professor Doug Struck who worked with Washington Post did to me, that building a list of sources use to solely rely on street interactions. Now with the internet and online communication, compiling sources is literally a click away. That is not to say gathering sources in person is dated. It is very crucial to have that face-to-face interaction depending on the stakes, just look at ProPublica’s reporting and you’ll see results proving so. Though I must add that having the option to crowd-source could be very efficient in terms of quantity. Especially in regards to sensor journalism that’s dependent on quantity to decipher trends. For example, WNYC’s Radiolab utilized social media effectively and had hundreds of people participate in their Cicada Tracker project. This sensor journalism project was very reassuring that people do want to engage in the news gathering process even though it could be intimidating.

The project done by Radiolab also illustrated that crowd-sourcing with sensors could create a more interactive relationship between the source and the journalist. Within the sensor journalism relationship, sources need to build something tangible that will help journalists craft a story. Maybe you would call that citizen journalism—I’d still call it sources—but whatever the name may be, people have a more tangible role in the story-telling process. It’s no longer just the responsibility of a quote, but something physically there people can point to. And like a like a quote, it’s still under the craftsmanship of the journalists, which ultimately establishes more credibility on the content. By also allowing people to be a part of the news-gathering process and having that step-by-step accessibility to a certain extent, it could potentially ease individuals who are skeptical of collected data.

The data is no longer big, it’s small data. And with small data, there’s more ability to pin-point the source. And it’s gathered by the people, not for-profit organizations. There’s this notion that big data is convoluted by big brother or it’s just outright too big to comprehended, and as such can be deemed as fair and accurate respectively. Sensor journalism can potentially ease some of those worries. Theoretically, it’s open small data.

Though all of the aforementioned ideas are still in beta. Radiolab’s sensor journalism project is regarded as one of the prime examples of how sensor journalism can work. Though this project had lower stakes, as quite frankly any exploration project should be. But what happens when the story is bigger than bugs? For instance, the story is water quality in Boston. Can I use my 20 dollar sensor to assess that water quality in the Charles River? Can I depend on my sensor as a reliable source and say the river is at a chronic level? Do I need a lab to validate this to me or can I do it base on my sensor? That was the project I explored in my Data Visualization class at Emerson College. We were to collect water samples in Boston and use our sensor, the Coqui, to document our findings. The Coqui essentially told us the conductivity of said solution through sound. When building this sensor and then documenting my findings, I realized how challenging the process actually is. Granted I must disclaim water science is not my area of expertise. Even so, building a sensor and entrusting it to tell me a story was hard. Sure, I could tell you the snow drift in Chinatown had a frequency so high I could barely hear it. But what do I say to construct a meaningful story, using sensor journalism this way?

There is a margin of error with any sensor, and it’s the responsibility of the journalists to determine how high and whether to use the data documented. I was a bit hesitant with my device which was why I could not imagine constructing a story solely on that. The experience was definitely a great preliminary measure. It was a constructive way to begin my exploration process with water quality in Boston, though I’m not too sure I’d depend on it alone to drive a narrative.

My hesitations only heighten when I think about crowd-sourcing this project. Having anybody document their findings and attempting to find trends with the data is worrisome on two fronts: training and credibility. I felt slightly more confident with my Coqui findings because I had a Public Lab representative help me make the sensor. Had I not had him with me—well, I don’t know if I’d trust my findings enough to publish them in a story. Sure, fact-check after fact-check would validate my findings, but could I expect the same of a participant of crowd-sourcing. My question to Radiolab’s Cicada Tracker was how did they go about fact-checking? Did they only look at the outliers? Is there just a sense of trust and faith you depend on moving forward with a sensor journalism story?

To say that this is the end of my line of questioning with sensor journalism would be a lie. There is still the ethical questions you’d have to resolve with sensor journalism. For instance ownership. Theoretically, I’d like to think it’s open and accessible data. But there’s no law to back that. Journalist Fergus Pitt, author of “Sensors and Journalism,” recommends that "during these early days of sensor journalism, we play it safe until the laws and ethics are clearly established." I would have to agree that journalists remain cautious. And while remaining cautious ask themselves the following: why they collect the data with the sensor in the first place and who controls it until the law of the land establishes it for everyone?


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