Public Lab Research note

Reflection on Sensor Journalism

by paigesolomon | February 23, 2015 07:25 23 Feb 07:25 | #11620 | #11620

Sensor journalism is the act of using a sensor to collect data, which can then be organized and used to create a story. It is a unique approach to collecting data and using that information to tell a story. While sensor journalism can be full of advantages that change the way journalists receive and share data, there are some holes in sensor journalism that can detract from the effectiveness of it altogether. Below are some pros and cons of sensor journalism.


The first advantage of sensor journalism that might be surprising is that sensor journalism requires equipment that is on the cheaper end. Electronics that we all carry around use sensors to collect data. Cell phones, camera, GPS devices, radio frequency receivers, microphones, etc. can be used to collect different kinds of data. The Tow Report gave a great example with the children’s sneakers that detect movement, triggering a light to flash in the shoe. The example gave a price of around $36. These devices are also easily obtainable. In our data visualization class, we created sensors that measured the conductivity of water samples from around the city. The pieces used to assemble the device were available at a local Radio Shack and there were also components that we used which can be found in almost every home (water bottle tops, screws, computers).

Because of the two advantages above, journalists can easily create their own sensors to collect their own data. Which brings me to my next point that reporters can gather and organize their own data on their own time. Some journalists rely on official sources to gather data, but sources from cities and government agencies aren’t always complete or accurate (refer to sensor journalism accuracy below in cons). But with sensor journalism, reporters can rely on their own data, and they can retrieve multiple sets of data to compare to each other to get a more accurate reading. Also in the Tow Report is the example of Public Lab’s use of sensors during the BP oil spill. In one scenario, photographers weren’t allowed to take picture of the shoreline, but Public Lab used weather balloons and kites to capture images which they stitched together to recreate the shoeline and where the oil had spread to. They also practiced spectrometry to trace oil samples back to a place of origin.

Along the same lines, journalists can collect data from multiple areas, while remaining in one place. We can’t all be everywhere at once, therefore sensors allow reporters to place devices in different areas to collect data.

Lastly, sensor journalism can take human observations and back them up with data. So in a presentation given by Lily Bui and found here, the air quality in Beijing around the time of the Olympics was poor. There was smog and visibility was lower. So the AP tracked the particulate matter in the air and created a visual to represent the data they collected.


There is a competition to collect data by different news agencies. Because there is this competition, journalists might rush to collect data and collect inaccurate data or incomplete data.

Accuracy is a big issue though. We can never truly determine how accurate sensor journalism is. By comparing collected data to other data sets or by collecting the same data over and over and comparing the results, journalists will never get the same answers twice. It is difficult to determine how accurate sensor journalism actually is. Going back to Public Lab’s BP oil spill example from the Tow Report, they used spectrometry to determine the origin of some oil samples they collected, but they revealed that they didn’t know how accurate their tests and data actually was.

While I did mention above that the equipment to collect data with can be easily obtained and cheap, the journalist using the device still has to know how to use it and how to read the data that it is receiving. So with the exercise my class did with receiving data about the conductivity of different water samples, a professional had to come in to show our class how to assemble the equipment and then how to use it. Personally, without having somebody there to show me how to put together the equipment, I would have been completely lost if I had followed the diagram he showed us. Education and being knowledgeable about how to use sensors is vital and can take time.


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