Public Lab Research note

The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Sensor Journalism

by jgualtie | February 24, 2016 17:27 24 Feb 17:27 | #12741 | #12741

Sensor journalism is a relatively new form of journalism that relies on technology to gather information to prepare it to be accessible to the public. While data journalists often relies on existing data to create their story, sensor journalists create data.

Examples of sensor journalism date back to the early 2000s, making it a relatively new form of journalism. The uses for sensor journalism are far and wide and have not yet entirely been discovered. In fact, it’s likely that all of the uses will never entirely be discovered as technology is advancing all the time. As long as technology continues to advance, sensor journalists will be able to apply these new concepts and devices to their work. Take, for instance, a report done by the Washington Post using ShotSpotter data. The gathering of this data relied on the fact that explosions in a gun barrel cause air-pressure changes, or sound waves. From there, they were converted into digital signals by microphones and pattern-matched by computers to produce records of the gunshot locations throughout Washington, D.C. This technology has not always been available, but because of the advancement of sound-gathering technology, ShotSpotter was able to be developed and create data that is relevant and important to the people of Washington, D.C. Because the data collecting was done for Washington Post, the information that was relevant also became accessible to the people of Washington, D.C.

This aspect is an important part of the sensor journalism process. The advancement of technology has also made data more readily accessible to the public, which can arguably be the most important part of the sensor journalism process. If all that data is gathered, but goes nowhere, it does not accomplish much. Sensor journalists can work with other journalists for publications, like in the case with Washington Post. The advancement of the internet has made it so that way is not the only way for a sensor journalist to spread their data. Consider, for instance, Public Lab. Sensor journalists can post their findings on the website and others can contribute to the conversation and spread the data. Data today can be shared fairly readily. Someone posted on social media can spread in seconds. Sharing this data with the world creates awareness. It could also create movement to fix something the data suggests, such as sharing data about pollution in a river could drive a clean-up afford.

Sensor journalism may have many aspects that could be good for the journalism process but there are certain downfalls to the reliance on it. One such issue was pointed out very plainly when Patrick Herron, who does sensor journalism to determine the safety of the Mystic River, came to discuss his work. While he discussed his data gathering work, he pointed out a machine that test the oxygen levels of the water, holding up the large machine and demonstrating how it works. While Dan Blair, who also works with sensor journalism, sat and watch, he asked how much the machine cost. It cost $10,000. Don, like many others, said he couldn’t afford something like that. Unless one works for a company willing to pay for something like that, it’s not reasonable to think that many journalists could afford something like that.

Don’s answer to a machine like that is to build one himself. He picked up a highly complicated-looking mechanism he made using circuits to measure oxygen. Although Dan’s mechanism supposedly worked the same as Patrick’s machine, it was easy to see which one would be more trustworthy. Unfortunately, building your own material is a good alternative, but not as trustworthy, again reiterating that sensor journalism is more for someone to do if they have the finances to do it.

Another issue with Don’s answer is that the building of circuits is not something that comes intuitively. Don was not always a sensor journalist and originally studied in college for a career to actually work with technology and circuits, not planning to use them for journalism. Students that actually studied journalism are on the other side of the spectrum. As a student of journalism, I have not taken a science or math class since I entered college. I briefly remember circuits from my junior year of high school physics class. I do not remember doing very well on that section of the class, either, so perhaps that’s why I felt at a loss to have wires, capacitors, and a bread board in my hand. While Don taught us the steps to make a mechanism to measure conductivity in the water, and to someone who had experience making something like this may have found it relatively easy, I fumbled with the device, unsure of what went where and why. Upon completion of the device, ours did not work and we had no concept of why. It turned out that there was one simple mistake that make it not work and it could be fixed in seconds. As someone who does not work with circuits, though, it took much longer than seconds for us to fix it and we took far more time making the circuit than actually using it. If we were also asked to recreate the circuit now, with no one to guide us, it would be fairly easy to assume that the majority of the class would not be able to accomplish this task.

It seems, then, that today’s journalism students are not all that prepared for sensor journalism. If we do not have the funding to purchase instruments, which most of us do not, we would need to build the instruments. But we have not had the instruction necessary to allow us to build these devices without someone fully guiding us. If we were to actually pursue a path in sensor journalism, that guidance would be gone and we would be fully at a loss.

That’s not to say that all sensor journalism is expensive enough that an ordinary person couldn’t accomplish it. In fact, many people are participating in sensor journalism or have the ability to and they don’t even know it. Consider, for instance, how many people we see on a day to day basis wearing a wearable, like an Apple watch or a Fitbit. Both of these wearables create data based on the person. Fitbit tracks the person’s activity each day and creates graphics on a website tailored to each person so that they know how they active they have been doing over time. In this case, the user is creating data for themselves. However grouping this data, comparing it to other users in different areas and at different times, the user could create a story based on how different users compare, to see how effective Fitbit really is, and what sort of changes Fitbit created in their users’ lives. Whether that user knows it or not, they did someone that participated in sensor journalism.

In a time where technology is all around us, sensor journalism is all around us. Not only is data more readily accessible to people, but sensor journalism itself is more accessible to people. Many people may not consider it, but they have opportunities to participate in sensor journalism every day, through the use of a wearable or apps on their phone. That being said, even smart phones and wearables may not be so readily accessible to some. Sensor journalism is a rich man’s game, in the way that the largest projects that can really cause change require the largest material that is far too expensive for the average person. If a company does not want something tracked by their workers, they just have to not give them the funding for it. Those with the money are in charge of the largest projects. Some are capable of going around this block by creating their own materials, but only those with the ability to do such a thing can accomplish that task. Most journalism students are not given training to build devices and circuits and would have to find outside training or attempt to do it themselves. Without or with proper training, the device still does not measure up to the one that could not be purchased and the data may be slightly off, enough to cause an issue in their trustworthiness. Sensor journalism needs to become more accessible and hopefully do so as technology advances.


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