Sensor Journalism, Uncensored

Perhaps you’ve been hearing this term “sensor journalism” in passing at conferences, on Twitter, and via the blogosphere? Producer Lily Bui sure has, and she investigated the term on her personal blog. We asked her to sum up what she’s learned here: 

Listen up, journalists.

Something interesting is happening, and you should be in the loop.

What is it?

Sensor journalism refers to a method of generating or collecting data from sensors, then using that data to tell a story. You may think this sounds familiar, especially with the rise of data-driven journalism and the open data movement. However, as Kelly Tyrrell aptly puts it, “sensor journalism is the first cousin of data journalism.”

Here’s the distinction: instead of scraping data from the internet or existing databases, you are collecting the data (or enlisting the help of others to do so). Using sensors. In real-time.

I know that was a mouthful. So, let me show instead of tell.

My favorite example is WNYC’s Cicada Tracker. Led by John Keefe, the project engaged WNYC listeners to build their own temperature sensors at home using instructions provided on the station website. The goal was to crowdsource temperature readings around the east coast to predict the emergence of the Magicicada brood. The data were then collected, visualized (beautifully) on a map, and used to tell a story.

Who is gathering the data, and how accurate is it?

Both scientific research and journalistic endeavor begin with the same thing: a question. For both science and journalism, crowdsourcing data allows the public to actively contribute to finding answers.

“This kind of technology is not for monitoring people,” said Travis Hartman in a recent interview with Current. “It’s for monitoring the environment we all share.” Hartman is a journalism grad student with an idea for a project to deploy a set of sensors throughout Columbia, Missouri, in order to study the city’s sound ecology. He is partnering with public station KBIA-FM.

Like Hartman, many citizen scientists are non-experts, but have an avid interest in science. This raises persistent questions about the quality and reliability of the data they collect. While citizen scientists are working hard to develop ways to validate crowdsourced data collection methods, journalists are finding ways to use crowdsourced data to contextualize and enrich stories rather than relying on them as a primary means of telling. 

At the end of the day, a healthy level of skepticism can only help advance current methods of crowdsourced data collection.

How can open sensor data help enrich storytelling and bolster the media’s role in galvanizing civic engagement?

Javaun Moradi, formerly of NPR Digital and now at Mozilla, writes on his blog that sensor network“can achieve the journalism goals of informing the public, investigating corruption, speaking for the voiceless, and seeking truth. The other side benefit is that local media can deeply engage with their audience in new ways. 

For example, WHYY-FM in Philadelphia has launched a bi-weekly citizen science segment in partnership with the citizen science site SciStarter—where I work as the executive editor—focused on projects connected to their broadcast region. A recent story reported on how the public can help report sightings of an insect called the woolly adelgid in Douglas firs to help scientists track the invasive species in or near Philly. 

Who else is doing this?

Here are a few more intriguing crowdsourced data projects that have recently sparked coverage:

As we move forward, networked sensors will likely become a more integrated part of our lives. With the improvement of wearable tech like Google Glass, the FitBit, Jawbone, and more, will sensor journalism shift from reporting on our environment to deeper stories on data we’ve collected about ourselves and each other?

This raises important questions about surveillance, privacy, and ethics. Nonetheless, I am enthralled by how many people are trying new things with sensor data. I love this spirit of experimentation that is circulating, and I hope that it’s contagious.