Public Lab Research note

Use of sensors in Journalism

by anniecarroll13 | February 24, 2016 18:26 24 Feb 18:26 | #12743 | #12743

People take in and create data just by doing their everyday routine. What they search for on the web, what kind of apps they use on their phone and where they get there information from could all be used to tell stories that extend and affect other. In the technologically advanced world that we live in today, the opportunity for data and sensor journalism to grow is endless. Just today as I was looking at an article in the New York Times and it referenced back to an interactive visualization about the rising temperature across the globe in 2015.This reminding of something that Lily Bui touched upon in the presentation that she gave to our class. When the company she was working for introduced the concept of using a sensor to individuals while they were biking to track different information, it seemed as though it was something that they didn’t understand why it was necessary. I didn’t really know why I was looking at this graph about the temperatures of different cities when it wasn’t something that I thought I was interested in. I ended up spending around 10 minutes exploring and learning and ended looking up more information about climate change and other issues that are adding to the rise of world temperatures. This resonated with me that this is truly untapped market within most individuals, and even within myself, to learn about new data through sensor based and data based visualizations. This is where I truly realized that sensor based journalism is coming alive and being showcased in the most widely recognized and view publication in the world in the NYT. With the vastness of opportunities in sensor journalism, also comes with challenges. The main challenge lies in the ability to understand what type of sensor would work the best for the information that you want to express to your audience. When Patrick Herron came to our class and talked about the Mystic River Water Shed Association and about the work they do, it really caught my attention. I couldn’t believe that even after growing up in New England, visiting Boston countless times throughout my life and now have been living here for three years, I had never heard of the Mystic River or how it affects such large population of Massachusetts. When we were told that we were going to make device that could test the conductivity of water, I became very nervous since building objects has never been one of my strong suits. I also had learned little about water science in my past education so I was always afraid that I would somehow not understand the findings that we would get from our samples. Once I learned that the device we were putting together were base around noise and pitch of the sound, I became more hopeful that this could actually show the differences in conductivity and that I would be able to understand. We then had to create the sensor ourselves while following along with the class demonstration. After putting my doubt aside, my group found the ability to build the device and test the water samples. Getting out of the way of my own fears and doubt about not being 100% confident in the subject was the true challenge. This challenge I see as being universal since it is a common fear to be afraid of what you don’t know. Another challenge could be the laws that are in place that were discussed in the Tow Report: “For journalists who are considering building their own sensors, the laws governing electronic devices may seem restrictive and somewhat counterintuitive. However, solid principles underpin the rules, even if the fast pace of change in modern hardware development appears to be stressing the current regulatory regime. One category of sensor-based journalism projects runs the greatest risk of breaking these laws: projects that incorporate custom-built electronics, especially if they’re being deployed en masse.” This is an important aspect that we as journalists have to make sure that we are staying in the boundaries of but also knowing when to push these rules so that we can find out as much information as possible for the public. When you are using sensor driven data to tell a story, it is promising the audience that you have looked at all angles of the situation and determined that using data collected from the sensor is the best course of action. We have been practicing with this a lot in class by using the information that we find interesting on the city of Boston data website and determining what data should be included into a visualization and what doesn’t work. In the one workshop using the DIY sensor and measuring the conductivity of water the main way to showcase the data about which water was more conductive was through sound. Whichever water source gave off a higher pitched noise, was the most conductive. The promise in this exercise was an outsider looking in on the project would have to trust his or her own ear along with trusting that we had properly created the device. This is a lot of trust that is thrust upon a reader or consumer of the information so it is imperative that all different sensor-types to convey information have been thought over before telling a story where there isn’t one to your audience. Yet when there is a great story to be told, there is this potential for another equally important story to be pushed to the side simply because the technology hasn’t been created. Say you want to do a story about space travel or a human colony potential living on Jupiter in the future, you can do all the background research and interviews with scientists that is possible, but if you don’t have the technology to collect that data then it is going to be difficult to tell this story. The other end of this spectrum is having the technological capacity to find out information, but fearing the possible ethical consequences. I think about this is in terms of a newsworthy event, like the Chipotle E-coli outbreak. Perhaps you created a sensor that could determine whether or not a person was washing their hands for a proper amount of time after going to the bathroom. After gathering the information, you find out one of the individuals is in the food industry and could have contaminated food for potential customers but this information would cause that person to lose their job. This is quite an ethical dilemma because it could result in someone losing his or her job and reputation, making it very important to understand how sensor gathered information could be tricky in relaying to a reader. Overall, I think that it would take a lot of trial and errors and practice with the sensor one is interested in using to tell a story. Knowing the in’s and out’s of how the device works and being able to realize what other elements of the story a sensor won’t tell is important as well.


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