Public Lab Research note

A Reflection on Sensor Journalism

by cassandrasue_ | October 06, 2014 17:22 06 Oct 17:22 | #11241 | #11241

Clashing journalism with science to form sensor journalism is a new uprising experience for journalists to create their work based on collecting data from sensors and using that information to tell a story.

Sensors appear in our day to day life. Examples of these are motion sensors, thermometers, heart rate monitors, security cameras and many more. The point of journalists is to allow these sensors to do their jobs and then give them a purpose. In collecting data from sensors and then giving that data a meaning, we as journalists can produce vital and helpful information to the public and use it to make changes in the world we live in today. Sensors can help us collect information such as air quality, oil spills, pollution, drought, deforestation, public health and water quality.

In Lily Bui’s presentation on sensor journalism, she concluded that sensors detect issues in our society, but whether or not the outcome of that data is successful or not is up to us a journalists.

An unsuccessful sensor is an app called street bump. This app detects bumps in the road while one is driving. The hope for this app was that major potholes and other street malformations would be detected so that the city or town in which these were detected could make repairs to the faulty roads. This app resulted in hundreds of trips being made, thousands of bumps being recorded, but no potholes we filled and no roadway problems were identified.

Another sensor test that appeared to be more concerning was one which included the results of arsenic tests across the United States. A map that used sensors to test arsenic in groundwater wells was posted to the Center for Public Integrity. This map showed where arsenic prevalence was especially high in the United States. This sensor test had more positive results that ‘road bump’ for this one concerned public health. The production of this map allowed individuals to be aware of the water they were using in order to prevent health issues such as cancer and heart disease, which are major causes of arsenic intake.

The reality of sensor journalism is that some tests that use sensors are not always affordable. It is costly for companies to use sensor in journalism without even knowing the accuracy of their results. In class we tested water conductivity with a low cost sensor that we put together ourselves to test the theories behind sensor journalism in water sources around Boston.

From personal experience in testing sensor journalism, there are a lot of factors that need to be taken in to account to makes the tests one hundred percent accurate. In class we tested water conductivity among different water sources in the city of Boston. Conductivity determines how much material is dissolved into the water. A high conductivity would show that the water has a lot of solids dissolved into it while a low conductivity would show that the water is more pure. From this statement, it would seem that dirty water has a high conductivity while clean water is low. Although sometimes accurate, materials dissolved into water are not always ‘bad’ and ‘dirty’.

When taking this into consideration, it would be inaccurate for journalists to say that just because water has a high conductivity that it is unsanitary and unsafe to use. Therefore we can only state the level of the conductivity, and would have to go into further research as to why before making assumptions. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism emphasized this flaw by stating that “Not all data is equal, and not all data can be released in raw form, particularly if it contains personal or private details. Resource constraints may mean that scrubbing data properly isn’t possible, which would argue against release.”

Another aspect of testing water conductivity that toughened our accuracy as journalists dealt with where the water came from. Students who collected water from salt water sources and boat yards had a much higher conductivity than students who collected water from ponds and fountains. In fact, the conductivity of those sources was so high, the sound was out of range for our basic water sensors. These water sources had to be tested with a different sensor that allowed us to hear the pitch for their conductivity. This lead to another inaccuracy in our sensor tests for the pitches because the pitches for the water sources were read through two different sensors.

Overall, sensor journalism is a new innovative way for journalists to collect information and produce new data sets for the public. When testing water conductivity, there were many factors in which we determined producing accurate information was a challenge. With more exploration, reasoning behind these water the conductivity of these samples can make for a great story and bring awareness to the public of the sanitation of the one of the essential sources to life, water.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism states that “In the future, more journalists will create data themselves using sensors, and engage their distributed audiences of readers, listeners, and watchers to help gather data with them.” Though our water project presented a challenge, there are many other forms of sensors which lead to clearer results and more accurate information. Sensor journalism is still being explored and it is a great responsibility that our generation is one of the first to explore it.


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