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Public Lab Research note

Reflection — sensor work

by jacktemp | October 06, 2014 02:26 06 Oct 02:26 | #11234 | #11234

Jackie Tempera Reflection

In today’s world, data is everywhere. Cell phone, computers, and other sensors are constantly collecting information— our lives are increasingly quantifiable. With this shift and the increase use of technology, journalism must change as well. Just as social media and online reporting was a major step in the modern day, I believe sensors could be the next new step.

Sensor journalism is a story told with help of self-collected data. This can be done many ways — by reviewing materials already collected by other tracking systems, or by building sensors and collecting the data ourselves. This is an exciting new frontier for journalists, scientists, and technology-junkies alike. The ability to collect data yourself is freeing — when a journalists knows the method, and collection techniques he or she can assess the value of this information. It is also a great way to get around the cagy world of FOIA requests, and other information gathering, which can often be exhausting and unsuccessful.

Sensor journalism is still up-and-coming. A recent, more publicized use of this method was seen at the Beijing Olympics. When the Chinese government wouldn’t release information about the air quality, a group of journalists set out to find the information themselves. By using sensors, they were able to collect the necessary information, and tell the story, which was an important one. Having this sort of power is an exciting concept.

But, with any new endeavor, the field has its limitations. Building and using sensors requires journalists to think like scientists, which is sometimes easier said than done. Analyzing results, conducting experiments, and collecting information effectively can be challenging. Also, building a sensor to use is very technical. Without clear instructions, this can pose a problem.

In our class, we used sensors to test the conductivity of water. With the help of Don Blair from the MIT media lab we were all able to successfully build our circuits, and begin data collection. After the building process, it was very exciting to see our little circuits work properly. It is a very physical, controllable, process, which I think is different for journalists.

But with that, comes some complications. Controlling your data set can be challenging. Obviously when self-testing, it is nearly impossible to collect a very data set. This would require a team of people, which is possible in some cases, but not everyone.

One effective example of this would be WNYC’s Cicada Tracker. By having workshops, and teaching people to use and build sensors, they were able to collect a large sample of data. However, they did relinquish some control. They now couldn’t be 100 percent certain the information was correct, or that the sensors were built properly. It is a balance.

With our experimentation, I think it was very important that we we all built our sensors together. This evened the playing-field. If we could do it again, I would like to pick out more pointed samples. By sending the class out to randomly collect water, we wound up with potentially too diverse of a data set. The salinity of the water undoubtedly affected the conductivity. With our limited sensors, we weren’t able to distinguish which sample was truly the most conductive, because this was thrown off. If we had narrowed our research to water from a certain area, or salt water vs. fresh water this may have worked better and made a difference.

In a broader sense, journalists would need to have a well-researched and executed collection plan, before going through a sensor experiment.


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