Journalists, scientists and technologists gathered at San Diego State University on Saturday for TechRaking 19: Sensing the News. The conference was an opportunity to explore the use of sensors and the data they collect as a springboard for news stories.

The Center for Investigative Reporting partnered with San Diego State’s School of Journalism and Media Studies to give journalists a framework for executing sensor-based news projects that address real problems in their communities.

“We’re here to learn some stuff, do some stuff and have fun,” said Andy Donohue, CIR’s managing editor, as he welcomed attendees.

TechRaking attendee maps out their project idea.
TechRaking attendee maps out a project idea.Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal

Donohue set the tone by asking attendees to think about a community they are a part of and answer four questions about that community:

* What excites them?

* What scares them?

* What don’t they understand?

* What is the biggest problem it faces over the next five years?

He added they would be breaking into groups and pitching projects that address their own communities. The teams would be judged on four metrics: doability, scalability, impact and public engagement. Judges would name one winner, which would get help making its project a reality. Experts in sensor journalism from across the country joined CIR and SDSU to facilitate the day and jumpstart the conversations. Christine Sunu, creative director of flashBANG product development and a former BuzzFeed Internet of Things fellow, offered a starting point for thinking about working on journalism technology projects.

“We need more journalists in technology,” said Sunu. “Sensor journalism is journalism, and journalism is something you know how to do,” she said.
She offered a framework by asking, “Who is the community you are working with? What is the problem? What is the right data to collect? And how can we use technology to help?”

Senior News Apps Developer, Mike Corey leads a hands-on workshop building a sensor
Senior news application developer Michael Corey leads a hands-on workshop building a sensor. Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal

Building off Sunu’s introduction to electronics, members of CIR’s data team led participants through a hands-on activity to build a working sensor. Teams wired a temperature and humidity sensor to a Raspberry Pi Zero and a display to read the output of the sensor, and a button to toggle between temperature and humidity readouts. Groups gained a new understanding for how they could approach their own project.

Lily Bui, Ph.D. student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, gave an overview of the field of sensor journalism. She offered a taxonomy of scale for sensor projects, from the personal, such as WNYC’s cicada tracker, to local, with AP’s air quality reporting during the Beijing Olympics, to regional, such as ProPublica’s Losing Ground project that examined the ongoing erosion in southern Louisiana using satellite data.

Other speakers discussed their own projects in more detail, including Sean Bonner, whose Safecast sensor network has grown into the largest public dataset of background radiation data. The project grew out of a lack of publicly available data after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Andrew Wickert, assistant professor of Earth sciences at the University of Minnesota, presented the sensor platform he’s developed as part of his research on deglaciation and melting ice sheets.

A panel explored the intersection of public engagement, citizen science and sensor projects, and discussed strategies for involving the public in contributing data or collaborating at a deeper level.

Mentors worked with the groups throughout the day to keep them focused on ideas that were doable and that had the most opportunities for public engagement. Project ideas ranged from a network of sensors in parking garages to help with traffic routing and flow, to a project investigating the environmental impact of Customs and Border Protection operating inside a national park along the border.

The winning project proposed to use microphones to measure decibels to examine noise pollution in the area surrounding San Diego State University. The data would be visualized on an online map, along with other data such as property values, so the community could see if noise pollution is an indicator of development and gentrification. Judges gave the project high scores for doability and scalability, but thought they might have a challenge overcoming surveillance fears among the community.

The key takeaway: Sensor journalism projects are doable. As Sunu said, “It is possible – never let anyone tell you that you can’t do tech for any reason. Nobody should be kept out of it.”

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Sam Ward is a former senior digital producer for Reveal, where he oversees the web team. He has years of experience producing creative digital media projects for Oregon Public Broadcasting, PBS, ITVS and the Smithsonian, and he has managed projects for funders such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education and Annenberg Media. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Ward is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.