Public Lab Research note

Water Samples For DataViz Reflection

by tati | October 06, 2014 02:20 06 Oct 02:20 | #11233 | #11233

Sensor Journalism, where science and journalism meet to create a new emerging genre of gathering information. Lily Bui, from Emerson Engagement Lab, defines sensor journalism as “ Generating or collecting data from sensors then using that data to tell a story”. Sensors are all around us. It's no question as to why they are now starting to become popular for journalist to use as a tool of gathering information. As mentioned in the TOW Report Sensors and Journalism, sensor journalism has three distinct styles. The first is to get sensor equipment and collect the data, then there is gathering data from existing data sources, and last is designing a prototype sensing system that will sense data.

This new era of tech savvy journalists allows for newspapers to include fancy infographics that display their data sets in user friendly designs as the TOW report concludes the reader no longer has to sift through a summary of the data set, the reader can now interact with the data.

The Benefits of using sensors is that journalists can now gather data for a particular story over a longer period of time. As the TOW report mentions journalists want to compare “does one neighborhood in Washington have more gunshots than the next? Has the number gone up or down over the last year?”, and sensors can help answer these questions. Journalists are taking advantage of this data in order to get their point across and have data as their proof.

Sensors are nothing new to humans we have our main sensors built in our bodies, but to sense what cannot be seen, heard, felt or touched that is where sensors come in handy. Even our smartphones are sensors they can take pictures, detect weather, record sound, and there are hundreds of downloadable apps available that can detect many other options.

Some cases in which journalists have used sensors to reveal information that otherwise would have been unknown can clearly be seen during the China Olympics. AP used TSI to monitor air quality for the Summer Beijing 2008 Olympics. This is a great example of sensor journalism that changing our view and understanding of events. In risk of losing the hosting position of the Olympics had the AP not had any way of tracking air quality the Chinese government would never had revealed information about air quality.

Thus, could sensor journalism help protect people? Could data become civic engagement? This is something that I think sensor journalism should strongly try achieving. In the same way the media can reach millions of people in any given day why not use this bonus to make a difference. The Center for Investigative Reporting did an arsenic investigation testing water wells across the United States. They included an infographic that displayed a map of America that showed where high quantities of arsenic could be found. This type of sensor journalism makes me excited for the future of journalism because not only is it a new type of reporting, but it also sheds light on global issues and shows how science and a storytelling process combined make people aware.

In our class we decided to use the sensor coqui, which would test the water conductivity of water found in the Boston area. Everyone in our class was expected to collect water samples from three different locations. After testing all our water samples we created a map that included all of data. We recorded the sound that each water sample made ( the higher pitch= higher pollution and lower pitch= less pollution).

After collecting all our data and organizing it on a pretty little map provided by google we needed to analyze it. The first thing I questioned was how to use all this data and make a story? This made me wonder could collecting data lead you to a story or how much data is enough to make a story? I realized that the data our class had collected sure wasn’t enough to make a statement about water pollution in Boston. How could conductivity tell me that the water was polluted? There were too many variables that played into my results. Were they even trustworthy? I would not say so because when sampling my Charles River samples with our water sensor there was a clear audible sound, yet when tested with another sensor there was a pitch so high that it was unclear if there even was something audible.

This made me very distrustful of the data. It was possible that we needed to gather more data over time in order to show that over the course of these couple of months this was the particular water sample’s pattern of conductivity. With a larger collection of data the results could be more reliable. There are many pitfalls in using sensors because as I study data more and more I find that a lot of data can be unreliable. There is this tendency to believe that having a graph or a chart gives a certain story more validity because data = fact. This statement is not true because data like any other statistic has its margin of error. The TOW report talks about sensitivity to interference “The degree to which a sensor’s detection of the target phenomena is influenced by other factors in most cases users will want their sensor to be insensitive to influences”.

For journalists to be able to tell stories with sensors there needs to be a lot of ethical descision making. First off they must not search for a story, because I believe you can make anything a story, but the difference is whether its worth telling. I think the journalist should have a question then decide which is the best way to discover if this question is true or false. Also, the journalist must be very conscience as to whether the data is reliable and if they publish their data be very transparent with their readers as to how they collected their data. This doesn’t mean it has to be part of the story, but it must be mentioned somewhere like for example as a disclaimer. The most important thing for me is that the journalist must have a very ethical stance on whatever they are trying to reveal or tell in their data collection because many people believe that data is fact when that is not necessarily true and may be misleading to the readers.

One direction we could take this sensor project is to include instructions as to how to build a coqui and have people interested in testing water conductivity go do it for themselves and then decided based on our results and their results if they think certain water in Boston is safe. This could help in so many ways because as of now people are used to taking advice from different reports and studies, but in this case we are giving the power to the people and its up to them to decide if the water is polluted based on their observations. It changes the situation and makes the public more engaged in public affairs. I think this is revolutionary because people could use the information from the news then create their own findings and compare results it allows for an even more open transparency between the media and the public.

I think what we are doing with sensors is really cool, but we just need more data before we publish anything or even better to find a story.


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