Public Lab Research note

Sensor Journalism

by flipgonza | February 24, 2016 18:59 24 Feb 18:59 | #12744 | #12744

Sensor Journalism

The times I am interested in something are few and far between, but sensor journalism intrigued me. My Data Visualization class has three speakers come and talk about sensor journalism and gave us concrete examples of stories that used sensor journalism to collect data. So what is sensor journalism? Lily Bui’s presentation defined sensor journalism as “generating or collecting data from sensors, then using that data to tell a story.” Sensors can be more than electronic sensors that give you numeric values, you can use your own senses to act as sensors like if you feel something hot or cold--that is data.

One story that I thought was fascinating was the Associated Press’ story about the air quality in Beijing before the Olympics. What really attracted me was that the journalist had the air quality sensors connected to their phones and this is how real values of the air quality came to light. These journalists didn’t trust the Chinese governments claim that the air quality was getting better; they took measures into their own hands and got accurate numbers. Another awesome thing these journalists did was compare the air quality to somewhere Americans could compare it to, so they compared Beijing to New York City. This story was what sparked my interest on sensor journalism, which I personally think will live for a long time, if done correctly.

Sensor journalism could in fact be the future of journalism, but with certain limitations. I think there is a big difference between the Associated Press reporting about the air quality in Beijing and John Doe reporting from his tool shed.

In class we had a workshop where we created sensors that measured conductivity in water. The sensor would make a sound and its sound level would change depending on the amount of conductivity the water contained. My group had water from the Charles River, tap water from Emerson, Smart Water, and water from a puddle from Berkley College. It was interesting to hear the different sounds levels the water would produce.

We compared: • Different types of bottled water • Tap water • Water from different spots at Emerson • Different locations from the Charles River

The different types of bottled water had the biggest range of sound level. Evian and San Pellegrino had the highest sound, probably due to the mineral content the water has. Dasani, Poland Springs, and Smart Water had a relatively low pitch, but Dasani had the lowest sound.

The tap water from Allston had the same sound level. The water from the different locations at Emerson essentially had the same sound level.

The different locations across the Charles River had different sound levels. There were two different water samples from the Esplanade and one sample from the water by the airport, and this sample had a higher pitch.

Comparing water levels was interesting but I don’t think that the exercise we did has any type of journalist merit. But I do find it useful for a preliminary test to see if there is a story behind water levels. The sensor is DIY, relatively cheap and simple to make (if you follow the instructions) so it is a good first step to take in order to find a bigger story. In that case I do believe it is a good step for journalist and it is going to change the face of journalism for sure. I do think it will bring up ethical issues and trustworthiness is going to be questioned but if it is used by the right people, with the right tools, I think it could be an amazing thing. For now I do believe it is good for a preliminary step to find a story.


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