Public Lab Research note

Sensing Change: A Look into the use of Sensors in Journalism

by chelsea_tremblay | February 23, 2015 18:27 23 Feb 18:27 | #11629 | #11629

In today’s technology driven society, sensor journalism seems like a logical, plausible future; however, what sounds good in writing isn’t always so easily attainable in practice. Although sensor journalism has many perks to offer, there are just as many kinks that need to be worked out before it can become a common and reliable tool for reporting.

One of the major opportunities journalists are offered through sensor journalism is the chance to uncover manipulated truths for the greater good. If there is one thing that makes a successful, rewarding story, it’s unveiling corruption. Lily Bui, MIT student and sensor journalism advocate, provided an excellent example of this being successfully accomplished by journalists using sensors to report on the 2008 Olympics in China. During her in-class presentation, she explained how a group of journalists used air sensors on their smart phones to track China’s air quality. What they discovered was that Chinese officials had been lying about the air quality and that on most days it was unsafe for the Olympic athletes to be competing in such conditions.

Another positive aspect of sensor journalism is that it allows journalists to generate data that has yet to be documented. The Tow Report on Sensor Journalism provides great examples of this in its case studies. The story of the environmental journalist in Houston really stood out to me because she goes above and beyond for her investigation of air quality in the residential areas around Texas oil refineries. After spending over $20,000 on this story, the journalist uncovered proof that the oil refineries were cultivating an unsafe living space—information that had never been collected in the past. Not only did her hard work benefit the Houston community, but through sensor journalism, she made a major policy changing discovery.

Patrick Herron of the Mystic River Watershed Association provided another successful example of sensor use through another method--crowdsourcing. He encourages locals to help document data about Massachusetts's Mystic River, which has been helpful to the small organization he works for. Crowdsourcing sensor journalism has had landmark successes in the past, such as in Houston and with the infamous Cicada tracker example, but it is the area of this practice that I am most wary about. It seems practical to ask the general public to help collect data when one person lacks the time, funds, and resources to do it themselves, but that leaves a lot of room for error. Sensors could be built incorrectly, the collected data could be faulty, etc. Even during our class experiment, it was obvious that many of us barely understood how to build the Coqui sensor or how it worked, and we even had experts helping us. It makes sense to try collecting as much data as possible in order to reach an accurate conclusion, but it is hard to trust that conclusion when the process includes trusting various untrained strangers.

Another aspect of sensor journalism that I find troubling is the amount of time and money that needs to be put into one story: collecting samples, testing, sending materials out to a lab, etc. I applaud those who have the dedication and determination to go to great lengths for a story, but with the decline of investigative journalism, I am unsure if such lengths have a future in this field. Also, with the shift to online mediums, many publications do not have the funds to allocate to one major story.

Personally, I think the curious drive journalists naturally have makes sensor journalism a fascinating, logical possibility for the future of communication, but I am critical of whether the general population--our readers--will trust this practice. It almost feels like the warning students always get about using Wikipedia; as the untrained professionals, it is as if our data would be synonymous with Wikipedia information when what readers seek is more professional input. From personal experience, I wouldn’t trust any conclusion my sensor project group came to about snow salinity in Boston. I would hope that a professional would be more meticulous about collecting data and testing than we were, but the project demonstrated how difficult that can be, especially when you don’t have a science or engineering background.

In order for journalists to successfully incorporate sensors into their reporting, I believe three major requirements will have to be met. Firstly, the journalist will have to have a background in the field they are investigating. It would be easier to trust scientific information collected by a reporter who minored in biology than someone like me, who has not taken an in depth science class since senior year in high school. Secondly, the reporter would need to find a trained professional to work with as a consultant on the project. It is commendable if a journalist wants to begin an investigation in order to inspire change, but they should find someone (or a team of people) formally trained to do the work required for the investigation. Lastly, if crowdsourcing is going to be involved, a method of fact checking needs to be implemented. Anyone could submit faulty information to a study--there needs to be a system in place that keeps that information from being published as fact.


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