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Public Lab Research note

Sensor Journalism & Water Conductivity Reflection

by caseyrcampbell327 | October 06, 2014 14:34 06 Oct 14:34 | #11237 | #11237

Casey Campbell

As the field of journalism moves further into the 21st century, the adaptability of producers, reporters, and editors must increase. We live in a world where everything is “Breaking News” and being paid depends on if your station is consistently “first”. With all the competition that exists, it is hard to distinguish a newsroom, never mind an individual reporter.

This is where the new idea of sensor journalism comes in. This is a new concept that is full of potential for journalists to explore. Traditionally, reporters have always used some forms of data to find and research stories. With the technology that we have today, thousands of data sets are available to journalists and has made data driven pieces an entire genre of journalism. Sensor journalism takes this concept and turns it on the individuals who are doing the reporting. This new field enable journalists with the ability to collect their own data, instead of finding a preexisting database and reporting on it. Reporters are using sensors in an era when the rapid development of technology is moving data into the mainstream of journalism. The Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center’s Report on Sensor Journalism says, “Reporters are using sensors in an era when the rapid development of technology is moving data into the mainstream of journalism. The increasing ubiquity of sensors, their increasing capability and accessibility are on the supply side, while investigative reporters, computer aided reporters and journalist/technologists are on the demand side” (9). Sensor journalism brings all of these types of new technology and concepts together and gives a platform for journalists to not only create their own original stories, but give the public a reason to listen to them.

I had, and still have, my skepticism about sensor journalism when first reading about it. After doing our own sensor project in our data journalism class, I see the field a lot clearer, but it still brings a lot of questions to mind. In our class we built our own sensors to test the conductivity of water, which ultimately is a piece of data that could relate to water pollution. We built a simple circuit with the help of Don Blair from PublicLab, which include a small speaker. The concept is that when the sensor came in contact with the water, based on the conductivity it delivered a sound through the speaker. The higher the pitch, the higher the conductivity. After some careful checking and readjustment, our sensor began to make noise. Along with the rest of our class, we were doing sensor journalism.

Of the three samples we collected, two were from the harbor of Plymouth, MA, in two very different spots. The first was from the town boat ramp where hundreds of boats launch every year, and the second from a local beach that has only been open to swimming in the last five years or so. The third was just plain tap water from Beacon Hill. (Read more about our samples here). Our findings turned out to be very unique. Since conductivity would be ultimately measuring the amount of dissolved solids in water, the ocean water would be automatically higher because of the natural salt. Because of this, we got some pretty high readings for those two compared to the fresh water. Of the two salt samples, we were surprised to learn that the beach read higher than the boat ramp. Our predictions were that the boat ramp would have been a more polluted area, so it would have been automatically higher. I think to be able to do a full journalistic piece on water conductivity, or ideally water pollution, we would need a more accurate measure besides the pitch of a speaker. However, using noise is a good tool because it takes data and numbers and turns it into something people can listen to and understand.

The work we did in class was fascinating, and I doubt that anyone at Emerson College has ever done anything like it (at least in the journalism department). However, in a field so new, there will always be questions and a little bit of skepticism. If any journalist was to do a report on the pollution of water (simply reporting on conductivity is not very relevant unless it relates to a more prevalent problem) this one test would not be able to do the job. With that being said though, if we wanted to continue to pursue this testing, there isn’t much stopping us. The circuit we built can easily be adapted to test different aspects of water, giving you more extensive data which could potentially be turned into an important story. At the same time, we need to remember to check the reliability of these sensors. Take the example of pollution air monitors that were set up in Louisville. An article from The Courier-Journal says about these sensors that, “the eggs do not consistently report their readings through the Internet, are not reliably accurate, and are not designed to allow comparison of pollution data from one device to another.” It also mentions the fact that there has been large technical difficulties which have hindered the ability to use the monitors. Similarly with our sensors we ran into technical problems, and would need an accurate system to measure different types of water, especially ones that differed by salt and fresh water.

The concept of actually building a sensor is another issue in itself for sensor journalism. While we were pretty successful as a class, it would be pretty humorous to watch a real newsroom try build the same thing. Journalists usually tend to not have a large background in science, if any, and I see frustration levels being very high. Logistically, many newsrooms may not see that this is worth the time or money. These devices may not be very expensive, which is great, but it does take time to figure them out and simply gather data in general. There is a big difference between looking at data someone else has gathered and gathering data yourself. In an industry of constant deadlines this could create problems.

Another issue that could arise is the ongoing, internal “battle” between upper management and the newsroom. Often, all the higher management of a news organization sees is nickels and dimes, as it’s their job to stick to the budget. This often interferes with long term projects that reporters attempt to pursue. Budget cuts are an ever-looming fear for news managers. The time that would be spent on a sensor journalism project could easily be seen as a waste of time, and it could unfortunately be easily shut down. Of course, for a journalist with no expertise in science (like myself) taking on a sensor project could take an excessive amount of time. This is where scientists, engineers, and folks like the ones at Public Lab come in. If journalists begin to collaborate with these people there isn't a newsroom that couldn't take on a project like this. Collaboration between many different fields will be key to the success of sensor journalism.

While sensor journalism still has its problems, it ultimately comes down to the determination to adapt to the new face of journalism. The Tow Report on Sensor Journalism says, “We are in an era in which reporters are hungry for data, and increasingly expert in using it; in an age when sensing technology is developing radically and permeating every aspect of modern life” (21). As I mentioned before, the industry has become so focused on being first on a story or having the best rating, mostly because of pressure from upper management and budget cuts. Anyone can do a piece on a new data set that’s published, though. But not every news organization is going to take the time to explore sensor journalism and come up with their own data. You can’t get much more original reporting than having a journalist go out and retrieve their own data. With transparency of its problems, sensors are going to give journalists an edge they have been looking for.


Hi, Casey - if you remove the leading spaces from each paragraph, the formatting will look a lot nicer. Thanks for posting!

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