Public Lab Research note


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Sensor Journalism - Why It Is Important To Use & Use Correctly

by sho1624 |

Sensor journalism is an absolutely essential and pertinent niche of journalism that is on the rise. I did not have a ton of experience in the field of sensor journalism before working on project for class, however I found the work not only extremely challenging but also extremely rewarding. After reading the Tow Report, listening to Lily Bui's presentation and working on a sensor journalism project myself I think that sensor journalism is an effective tool of gathering and interpreting data, however I think that it is a tool that needs to be used correctly and intelligently.

During Lily Bui’s presentation I found all the things that sensor journalism could do fascinating. I mean reporters during the Beijing Olympics used sensors to record the actual air quality in a given place on a given day to not only inform the public about safety of the athletes competing but also exposing the government of not releasing factual air quality data. I also loved the use of sensor journalism as a way to bring the community together to investigate a common issue, such as what WNYC did with the Cicada trackers. Their readers used the tools the radio station offered them such as how to assemble homemade temperature readers and provided the station the temperature of several locations in order to track the movement of cicadas and when they would emerge in the city.

While these two examples were both different in technique, they show just how vast the field of sensor journalism really is. From air quality reporting to temperature reading to track the movements of cicadas sensor journalism is being used more and more as a legitimate source of reporting. However, as the use of sensor journalism rises, so does its skeptics and they have their reasons. Homemade devices can give off wrong results or not work properly, community members may not be able to read these devices correctly or be able to understand the results that they have found. For all of these reasons and more, it is necessary to go into sensor journalism with a grain of salt. Just like everything that is human tested, there is plenty of room for human error. A way to eliminate error is to not only test things with homemade and cheaper devices but to also send samples to an official lab and pay a fee to get accurate readings.

Such is the case with our experiment with the conductivity of water. In class we created our own Coqui device and used that device to test 3 samples of water. Our first sample of water was from a snow bank in the backyard of a Allston, MA home; The water was pretty clean, an audible sound could be heard when the Coqui was placed into the sample, the noise was of a low frequency. The second sample was from a snow bank on Boylston Street; this water was not as clean, no sound came from the Coqui as the frequency was too high for us to hear with the current conductor in the Coqui. The third and final sample we tested during this project was from Fellsmere Pond near Malden, MA; the water was not as clean as the Allston snow bank, however an audible sound with a high frequency could be heard when the Coqui was dropped in the sample. The results make sense due to the locations the samples were found; the dirtiest sample was taken from a dirty snow bank on a busy city street (thus resulting in high conductivity), the two cleaner samples were taken from a top a frozen pond in Malden, MA and a clean snow bank in Allston, MA (thus resulting in lower conductivity). The two cleaner samples were much farther away from the road salt that has been spread on the roads relentlessly this severe winter; therefore making them certain to have less salt. While these results make sense to us as journalists, a more accurate way of telling if our sensors were working correctly and if our readings of the results were correct is to send these samples to the lab for conclusive testing. I am not an expert in reading noise frequencies, therefore getting official results from a lab would make a story on the conductivity of snow banks in Boston and surrounding towns more solid and it would make me feel as though I did the ethical thing as a reporter. While we might not always trust the numbers or the data figures that the government gives us, it is important for us to do our own investigating and testing. However, when our results are not trustworthy either the ethics of a investigative piece can be lacking. With official results from a lab (hopefully not government owned) can provide solid numbers and proof to show to your readers.

Sensor journalism is very important in the movement to enact change in all facets of the earth and our life. Sensor journalism allows citizens to question what the government tells us and gives us the tools to investigate the issues for ourselves such as with what PublicLabs is doing. Sensor journalism is everybody’s game, however it needs to be played carefully and intelligently so we gain the public’s trust by presenting true and provable facts and data.



testing water sensor-journalism

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