Public Lab Research note

A Quick Look At The Issues With Sensor Journalism

by ryan_smythe | February 24, 2015 00:37 24 Feb 00:37 | #11632 | #11632

Data and sensor journalism is such an incredibly new field that even this small look inside a piece of it with the coquis immediately increased my knowledge what feels like tenfold. Coming into this class, I knew what a sensor was, I knew some things that sensors could record, and I knew that I knew about as much about how they were designed as my grandfather who fought in World War 2. Now that I’ve been able to play around with a sensor, I at least have a vague idea of how this one specific one works. To vaguely quote Thor, magic is just technology that we don’t understand yet.

What struck me first about the coqui was just how simple it was. Having an expert around to explain the concepts Bill Nye-style, while laughable at times, made it almost impossible to not understand the basic concept of what we were making. The ability to test the conductivity of water is, to a generally unscientific mind, incredible. I could sing the praises of the coqui sensor all day if I knew people would listen. The simplicity of the design, the easy to understand nature of if it makes a high-pitched noise, the water is more conductive, and the ability to plug it into a computer and run software to give an exact reading of the pitch makes it so easy to use.

That being said, applying this to an article would be incredibly difficult. The first issue would be sample size. How many water samples would need to be tested before the data could be successfully applied to an article? We tested three different samples from across Boston, taken from various snow drifts. What we learned was that the two samples taken from snow drifts in areas with heavy traffic were much more conductive than the one sample taken from a fresh, unsullied snow drift. Given that Boston takes up 48 square miles, we would need to take many more samples before I would feel comfortable including them in an article.

The next question that comes up is what is the easiest way to collect all of those samples while respecting the typical journalism deadline? The obvious way is to spend a day traveling across the city, gathering samples in what would end up being several dozen bottles. Given the lackluster performance of the T during the recent blizzards, that travel could take the entire day, leaving whoever is doing the reporting strapped for time.

The other option is crowdsourcing the collection of data. This bring up another question, of whether the samples taken would be given directly to the reporter or each tester would build their own sensor. Bringing all of the samples to the journalist would provide the most consistent data, since variables in each individual coqui could change the readings enough to mess with the final results. It would also require several people to understand how to build the coqui, as well as hook it up to the computer. As simple as it is to build, it still took a decent amount of troubleshooting to get all of the class’ sensors working, and that was with the help of professionals. Citizen helpers wouldn’t have that access, and could potentially fail at making one.

If each person brought their samples to the journalist to test, the the issues that could come up include contaminated containers ruining the samples, taking samples from places other than where they were supposed to be taken, or too much time taken to bring in the samples. The most likely issue would again be deadline, but the possibility of an ethical problem can’t be ruled out. Without a consistent and solid way to confirm that every sample was taken from the place it was supposed to be, only so much weight can be put on the back of this data.

Possibly the biggest problem with creating a story based around the coqui data is the accuracy of the sensors. Yes, they give off an audio audio response that correlates to the conductivity of the water, but what exactly causes the reaction cannot be determined through the sensor. The best outcome is that it gives some indication to the general quality of the water, but until it’s taken to a lab and determined exactly what in the water is causing the reaction, there isn’t much data that would be able to support this kind of article. Since the test would be to determine water quality, there would obviously be groups invested in proving the water quality in Boston is good, so any data showing otherwise would need to be airtight.

The coqui sensor is beautiful. It’s easy enough to put together with a little bit of help, but when it comes to journalism, the standard for the data used is so much higher than it is for other uses. Journalists need to fact-check everything, since the information they publish is for the greater good of the public. Publishing data that could be wrong or misleading is not something we can do, so for the time being the coqui data is incredibly difficult to work into a story.


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