What do open sensor networks mean for journalism?


Originally published by Javaun Moradi on 16 December 2011 on javaunmoradi.com. This article is edited and republished with permission. 


If you’re a data journalist or a community activist and you haven’t heard of Pachube (pronounced “PATCH bay”), you should look them up. They’re trying to answer a question that no environmental group or government agency can answer right now: at any given time, how clean is the air in my neighbourhood?

Pachube is about to pilot citizen-led air quality sensor networks in New York and Amsterdam. Pachube’s business is to become a data hub for the “Internet of Things” — Internet connected objects and ambient sensors — allowing citizens to share meaningful data and learn from one another. Civic engagement is part of their mission.


Air quality sensor in the Pachube pilot project

The granular air quality data they’re attempting to capture doesn’t exist anywhere – you can download a snapshot of air quality data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but there’s no real-time stream and the closest EPA sensor is likely miles from your home. Or at least much farther than a do-it-yourself sensor you can mount outside your window.

Sensors were on my mind again after all of the discussion of drone journalism at News Foo in December. I was certain someone must already be doing this project and stumbled across Pachube during my search. I spoke with Pachube’s Ed Borden, fully aware that neither he nor any of the volunteers he works with know how this will turn out. I was still very impressed with their level of organisation, ambition, and common sense approach to the problem.

Citizen generated data is going to create two big opportunities for news organisations — or for whoever steps up to fill the need.

The first opportunity is that a lot more data is going to create a lot of areas for news reporting. There will be real-time data visualisations and gradient maps. Experts may provide analysis for seasonal trends and prediction. And when sensor data shows a spike that may indicate negligent or criminal activity, it’s going to take a shoe-leather reporter to fully investigate the matter and bring responsible parties to bear.

The standard analogy is the weather, a $4 billion industry in the U.S. that relies almost exclusively on data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While we may not see another cottage news industry this large, the cumulative size of many new niche areas could easily exceed this. If stage one of data journalism was “find and scrape data,” then stage two was “ask government agencies to release data” in easy to use formats. Stage three is going to be “make your own data,” and those sources of data are going to be automated and updated in real-time.

Inexpensive, ubiquitous citizen sensors aren’t going to have the precision (at the outset anyway) of more costly professional sensors, and journalists should embrace these networks anyway. These networks aren’t trying to replace scientific and government detection equipment, they’re trying to both fill a data gap and advance conversation.

Air quality is the perfect test for many reasons. The technology already exists. It’s a fundamentally local (really hyperlocal) issue but without measurement, it feels abstract. I live near an airport and one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants on this side of the Mississippi. If our air happens to be dangerous, and if the parents on my block had even the crudest awareness of the air quality trend outside their front door, they might take action. Drastically change their kids’ routines. Or move. Or petition for a rigorous scientific study of local air quality.

The second opportunity that open sensor networks will present for news organisations is the same one they’re already hesitant to embrace on other civic engagement platforms. (I’m going to take a narrower, more specific view than what Jonathan Stray, JC Stearns, and Melanie Sill wrote in December. But I largely agree with them that we need to be open to redefining how we achieve our missions.)

The open government movement has already spawned many start-ups to solve problems that citizens and media believe are worth solving. These start-ups almost always lack a captive media audience. They need help recruiting citizen participants and driving awareness of their platforms. Whether they know it or not, they do need an objective third party to validate their work and give it authenticity. News organisations are uniquely positioned to serve as ethical overseers, moderators between antagonistic parties, or facilitators of open public dialog.

For lack of a better term, I’ll call this "citizen engagement journalism": applying the newsroom’s tools and values to advance the cause of journalism by means other than reporting.

It’s a responsibility that is every bit as noble as reporting and 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.

I think about this a lot, because the public radio system has so much untapped potential to ignite its communities. Public radio has a footprint in every local market, and we’ve known for years that our listeners are dying to interact with us beyond just turning on their radios.

Collaborating is a lot more complicated than it sounds. Start-ups may have an activist bent and are puzzled why local media isn’t giving them free promotion. News media may either fail to see the new opportunity to become a new kind of community steward, or they may feel genuinely threatened by new civic engagement platforms. Partnerships have been slow to materialise.

Neither start-up civic platforms nor media really understand each other's needs and boundaries, so we can’t pin the blame solely on media intransigence.

This deserves a follow-up post on how journalists can take a page from civic hackers and fill a new role. I promise to include some detailed examples of where this is already working and how it could be better.

In the meantime, what do you think civic hackers and journalists need to learn about each other to collaborate?