Emily Bell is the Director of The Tow Center, formerly the Director of Digital Content at The Guardian.
Prof. Joanne Gabrynowicz teaches space law and remote sensing law at the University of Mississippi and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Space Law.
Robert “r0ml” Lefkowitz is the CTO at Sharewave, a startup building an investor management portal. He has devoted his career to making data easier to acquire and use – managing data services for companies in the airline, insurance, telecommunications, and financial services industries.
Kord Davis is the author of The Ethics Of Big Data, and has twenty years experience providing business strategy, analysis, and technical consulting to more than 100 organizations of all sizes including: Microsoft, Intel, Nike, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Western Digital, and Gardenburger. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Reed College and professional certifications in communication, systems modeling, and enterprise transformation.
The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science is a community that develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. Liz Barry, their director of urban development, spoke about the organization and one of its data projects, balloon mapping, in this brief lightning talk.
The Public Laboratory has a growing community of researchers who use open source hardware and software tools and methods to generate knowledge and share data about health and the environment. Its mantras are accountability through evidence, and getting boots on the ground to be able to investigate and hold government and industries accountable when necessary.
The Public Lab has also launched a program to manufacture and sell affordable “civic science kits” which have become extremely popular; these include aerial photography “watchdog” kits and spectrometry kits for measuring contaminants. The balloon mapping kit sells is one of the most popular kits of the group. It allows civic-minded citizens to collect aerial photos from 1000 feet, and has already been used to fly over the Jamaican Bay, and in New York City-based projects among others, according to Barry.
Javaun Moradi is a product manager at NPR digital. He runs their APIs, which you can now learn by taking a Codecademy course. He’s one of the inventors of the Infinite Player, an experiment in continuous, personalized listening and is also very interested in what open hardware sensors mean for news and society. He’s a big fan of open source software and open data and loves the public media mission to create a more informed, culturally-enriched society.
Javaun Moradi “waded in” to sensor journalism territory after he started talking to the experts. He spoke to a geochemist at Columbia University. He met people in the open source community. Many conversations later, he realized that he–and all of us–live in a truly exciting time for tapping into the potential of data. “If data didn’t exist, we could make it,” Moradi said. The way he saw it, independent groups and the civic media were already solving problems that journalists would be interested in–and they were doing it without reporting.
Moradi outlined five of the most important points for sensor journalism.
Look outside of journalism
Innovations in sensing are happening all over: in open data, hacker communities and citizen science efforts. We need to broaden our perspectives.
This means engaging an audience; the most successful sensor projects tend to be the ones that have community baked into their plans from the beginning. But it also means teaming up with the government. “Sometimes we FOIA them, sometimes they subpoena us,” Moradi half-joked. “But they’ve got great data.”
Revisit privacy and ethics
Moradi says “we have ethics guidelines, but the data is coming from unexpected places and so quickly,” he said. Journalists need to create better rules to make sure the communities they are supposed to be helping are not inadvertently harmed.
Data Control and Access
Just because someone buys a sensor, he said, doesn’t mean that person owns the data. Moreover, we should ask: Is the data even valuable? Does it solve a meaningful problem? Is there a story?
A universal, stable platform
Finally, Moradi says we need to have a universal, stable platform that can crunch large data sets across each other. One city project working with another city project, for instance, could have very interesting potential.
John Keefe is the Senior Editor on the Data News Team at WNYC, New York Public Radio. The team helps infuse the station’s journalism with data reporting, maps and interactives, and recently led Radiolab’s Cicada Tracker project, which included a crowdsourced sensor component.
Matt Waite teaches reporting and digital product development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, where he also founded the Drone Journalism Lab.
For the second keynote, John Keefe, a data news editor for WNYC and Matt Waite, who runs the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, stepped up to the podium to talk about how sensor data is being put to use by journalists and concerned citizens aiming to tell new stories about our world. Keefe began by presenting a quick review of different types of easy-to-use sensors that is making it easier for media outlets to gather data points themselves. He also discussed open hardware’s inevitable trajectory towards a cheaper price tag.
The Beijing Air Tracks project from the MIT Civic Data Design Lab was one scheme that really embodied sensoring the news, according to Keefe. In the 2008 Olympics, AP reporters snuck in sensing devices disguised as pieces of camera equipment and took measurements of particulate and carbon monoxide levels, which gave them the capability to report air quality conditions in real-time as they moved around the city. The sensing device they used, a black carbon detector, then cost $400.
A few years later, advancements in technology allowed the sensor’s price to drop down to about $200 or $300, and with the price drop a new project emerged. A group connected to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health mounted these sensors on the backs of bicycles and ran them around Dumbo, Brooklyn, taking readings. The goal was to map out critical pollution zones in the area.
Illustrating another step in the march toward cheap processors, Keefe flashed a $50 XYZ Arduino onscreen. Matt Waite had thrown the bizarre-looking contraption in his luggage, he told the audience, to capture data about how airport personnel handled his luggage. Pointing out one particularly large spike, Keefe joked that the TSA did not take well to discovering a hacked together device with exposed wires hidden inside someone’s bag.
But the larger point, he said, was that prices are coming down for the ability to do things. In Keefe’s view project that best demonstrates this is WNYC’s effort to track when the cicadas would show up during the warmer days of the year.
After a hackathon event, WNYC came out with a cicada tracker that could be built for about $200. Soon, listeners were saying they could build the same tracker using cheaper parts, for only $80. Hack Manhattan produced a design that brought the cost down even further -to $16. The Hack Manhattan members took it even further; designing a circuit board and sending the plans to Chinese microchip plant who fabricated 50 units for $60. Currently, the WNYC group estimates that about 300 people have built the device and are still taking daily measurements. From an engagement standpoint, that’s impressive.
Keefe concluded that sensor journalism is real and here. There is already a confluence in the elements of hardware, price and crowd interest. The only thing that’s missing is the story.
Next up was Matt Waite, who was at the conference to discuss sensors, drones and journalism. At present, he pointed out, journalists are starting to hack hardware, and civic-minded hardware hackers are telling story with data. With code and schematics sharing at an all-time high, facilitated by the Internet, partnerships are forming.
But, he noted: If you’re a journalist, chances are you aren’t good at soldering stuff. So what can we do right now?
According to White, with the aid of sensors, we can make news personal and communal: as a species, humans want to know things about ourselves, and sensors give reporters the ability to give the public information about their situation. Scale that up to hundreds or thousand’s of people’s self-interested data, and you’ve really got something, said White.
He briefly described a sensor that he built and put in his own backyard as a way of gathering personal information within the larger pursuit of raising awareness about drought.
Drones, White said, had the same potential to bring massive events down to that personal scale. They can act as data mules, delivery vehicles, and data gatherers. White imagined scenarios where drones could be flown out to gather information in a situation where it was too dangerous to have human exposure, as in the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
The near field future is wide open, White said. Ideas are wanted, and always welcome.
Despite a looming Hurricane Sandy, the Tow Center’s Mapathon 2012! with MapBox and CartoDB produced great results, with student teams, mentors, and a handful of outside participants collaborating to map and visualize data from West Nile outbreaks to rat populations in the NYC area. Very special thanks to Dave Johnson (@djindc) and Andrew Hill (@andrewxhill) for their invaluable instruction and and tireless assistance to our teams. (more…)
Big innovations bring new perspectives to election coverage. That was the overriding message from journalists speaking to Columbia Journalism School students last week, at an event organized by the DuPont Awards Center and moderated by Tow Center director Emily Bell.
As Political Editor of PBS’ NewsHour, Christina Bellantoni oversaw the show’s online innovations. There was the “hat cam”, which sat on top of reporters’ heads, as they roamed the party convention floor and streamed all they heard and saw live from the delegate’s perspective. Her team also came up with Listen to Me, an online showcase of how voters across the US feel about the political process. Other online innovations included the Political Party Quiz and digital maps of election data. (more…)
The Tow Center hosted its inaugural Journalism and Technology Breakfast on Wednesday 30 May at Soho House. Journalists and tech entrepreneurs gathered at the swanky Chelsea members’ club to discuss the interplay of digital innovation and journalism over artisan granola and baked goods. The event, moderated by Tow Director Emily Bell, is to be the first of a twice yearly event which aims to plug Columbia Journalism School further into the New York tech community. In his opening remarks the Dean of the Journalism School, Nicholas Lemann, said the event was keeping in tone with the move of the school towards further engaging with the digital journalism world.
The first speaker, John Borthwick, CEO and founder of betaworks, spoke of the changing landscape of technology and its impact on journalism. Borthwick said that when he founded the new media investment company four years ago, he did so “outside of the noise” around current media-tech startups. Borthwick described betaworks as a company rather than a fund; a position that allows the organization to participate in the development of its investment projects without becoming trapped in the politics of legacy organizations. Speaking in relation to one of the recipient companies of betaworks’ investment, bitly, Borthwick emphasized the importance of data in the newsroom. “The data layer is a shadow because it’s part of how we live; it’s there but usually not observed”, he said.
Since its launch last year, the New York World has focused on producing heavily data-driven stories about government accountability in New York. Editor, Alyssa Katz, introduced the work of two of her team that particularly demonstrated the role of data in finding stories. Via video link, Michael Keller presented a four-part interactive - Our Future Selves. Keller was unable to attend the breakfast because he was in Paris receiving the second place prize for the project at the Global Editors Network International Data Journalism Awards. The piece, originally produced for Columbia Journalism School’s News21 workshop, was published by the Washington Post. It uses census data – collected and analyzed by Keller and his partners on the project, Jason Alcorn and Emily Liedel – to show the effect of an aging population.
Alice Brennan went on to explain another project she produced with Keller and other members of the New York World team. Using NYPD stop and frisk data, the New York World worked on a series of stories about incidents of stoppings around city and the demographics behind the figures. Brennan said the biggest challenge the team faced was the state of the data, which took three weeks to clean and required interrogation of 117 columns of data.
CEO and co-founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, and editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, closed the event with a discussion that built on Borthwick’s remarks about the changing nature of the web. Peretti described the BuzzFeed homepage as “a place to share”, catering to the shift in the behavior of internet users. Smith went on to explain the impact of Twitter and how its changed the way people converge on the social web. “The beast wandered off to tweet. People were no longer hitting refresh on their RSS feeds anymore,” he said.
Like Borthwick, Peretti and Smith acknowledged the importance of data in the newsroom. Web publication is not only a cheaper production option than print, they said, but also gives editors and journalists a clearer picture of their audience. There has been a fetishization of the news which lacked engagement with the larger picture. The initial excitement generated by the gizmos has now faded and journalists and developers have arrived at a place to think more critically.
The Tow Center for Digital Journalism explores the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — particularly as consumers of news seek ways to judge the reliability, standards and credibility of information.