Sensor Journalism

E-mail Melanie Martella

Sensor journalism is the idea of journalists using sensors to gather their own data to inform their news reporting. With the confluence of interest in sensors; Big Data; the Internet of Things; and cheap, user-friendly, yet powerful open-source hardware such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi that let you build your own devices, many people are waking up to the idea that monitoring their environment is something that they can do, too.

I am a huge fan of sensors. I think they are amazing and wonderful and that if you use them right, you can learn incredibly useful things. But I've also been around sensors long enough to know that to get usable data, you have to think long and hard about what you want to measure, how you're going to measure it, and how to make sense of the resulting data.

I've run across a couple of (I think) great articles talking about sensor journalism—what makes it possible, where it may be useful, and some of the technical and ethical pitfalls that it can entail and I'd urge you to read them because they are interesting and thought-provoking, and it's always educational (and, I would argue, valuable) to see how sensors are viewed by people who aren't knee-deep in the industry.

The first article is from NPR's Javaun Moradi who wrote "What do open sensor networks mean for journalism?" on his blog back in December, 2011. In it, he talked about how citizen-generated data provides opportunities for news organizations to expand both the types of news they report and the methods they use to do so. Cheap and pervasive sensing devices can provide granular, local data that isn't available otherwise.

The most detailed article I've read so far, "The cicadas are coming: WNYC's tracker is the latest sign of the rise of sensor news networks" is written by Caroline O'Donovan for the Nieman Journalism Lab and it does a truly excellent job of capturing the enthusiasm of applying technology in new ways as well as discussing how the details of what you are trying to do—in terms of accuracy, reliability, timeliness, and utility of the information—add complexity to the task of collecting and analyzing the data.

I had to laugh when I read the following quote from Matt Waite, who founded the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska:

Waite says in his experience building hardware for journalism, the best thing to do is get an engineer in the room: "These are not issues that journalists have had to consider: How reliable is my wireless sensor node? And how robust is my mesh network? Engineers have been talking about this stuff for a long time."

Engineers have, indeed, been talking about this stuff for a long time. They've been figuring out how to make sensors and systems work effectively in a wide variety of environments. Now a new generation of people gets to learn about sensors and how to use them to explore the questions they want to answer. I can't wait to see what they find out.

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