Sensor Journalism At The Tow Center

Printed Circuit Board

Sensors are changing journalism. Whether on drones, with humans or in networks, they give us the chance to collect our own data and tell better stories. However, they also present challenges for reporters in verifying information, gathering, processing and making sense from the data and navigating new ethical and moral considerations.

The Tow Center has put in a lot of time, effort, resources and thought into sensors and journalism. We’re excited by the smart people who have written about the possibilities, built products, raised money and started running projects. We see a lot of opportunities to help the digital journalism community develop the field and to integrate sensors into what we do at the Columbia Journalism School. This is a natural extension of data and drone journalism.  News organizations have always tried to bring their communities stories about their local environments. They’ve always been looking for ways to report where most citizens can’t reach. As more people develop the skills to customize electronic hardware, a whole ecosystem of sensor components, batteries and networking equipment has become cheaper, more powerful and more widespread. We think this wave of technological change means we can tell more important stories in more ways. But we’ll need new skills and new types of teams to do so.


CONNECT | Follow on Twitter #TowSense Here’s what we’re doing.


Sensor Workshop

TOW REPORT: Sensors and Journalism | May 2014 

An extensive report on Sensors and Journalism including chapters on the history of sensors and legal and ethical considerations will be launched at the Tow Center’s Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation Conference on May 30, 2014 at Columbia Journalism School. Register here.

Summer Sensor Newsroom | May 27, 2014 – June 23, 2014 

The Tow Center has launched the Tow Center Summer Sensor Newsroom, a new seminar exploring how to use sensor data in journalism. The intensive, 9am to 5pm, four-week lab is co-taught by industry professionals and is open to recent Columbia Journalism School graduates (classes of 2012, 2013, and 2014) and current Columbia Journalism School students. Specialist topics are being taught by:

  • Mike Dewar (The New York Times R&D Lab)
  • John Keefe (WNYC Data News)
  • Ben Lesser (Daniel Pearl Award winner, New York Daily News, True Politics)
  • Lela Prashad ( & NASA Satellite Sensing)
  • Kio Stark (WNYC Data News, OpenNews Source)
  • Julie Steele & Kipp Bradford (Data Sensing Lab)

Participants will report stories using a variety of sensor reporting methods, including custom prototypes, satellites, and official sources. The course will combine practice, theory and collaboration, drawing on techniques and ideas from recent stories run by innovative digital news rooms. We’ll also cover the legal and ethical issues triggered by sensor reporting; from the intellectual property and uncertainty questions to the privacy and surveillance considerations. Learn more here.

Luggage Trauma Project

By asking the question “what happens to my luggage once I’ve checked it?” this project investigates the processes and viability of media companies building customized sensor hardware to produce data for journalism.It builds on a demonstration by Ben Kreimer and Matt Waite, which they presented at The Tow Center’s Sensor Journalism Conference in June 2013. Researchers: Ben Kreimer and Matt Waite

Sensor Array At ONA | Oct. 2014 | Atlanta, Georgia

SenseLab Motes

The sensor network we deployed at ONA had 30 separate ‘motes’ each collecting temperature, RF activity, motion sensors, audio levels and undifferentiated air-quality. We also had a single unit at the back of the room logging MAC addresses. With the Tow Center and WNYC we chose this combination of sensors because we wanted to sense what people were doing (moving about and using their cell phones) and what people were experiencing (warm and cold patches, air quality). The MAC address logger was included as a way of talking about privacy and surveillance. The whole network was administered by a single computer, which controlled each mote, knew its position, processes the data and uploaded it to Dropbox. WNYC’s data news team pulled the data off Dropbox and visualized it on a webpage which ONA projected onto the big screens. Learn More:

The Sensor Journalism Workshop | June 1-2, 2013 | NYC

Sensor Workshop

The Tow Center hosted a community of journalists, hackers, makers, academics and researchers to explore sensor journalism. There were two goals for the workshop: We wanted participants to come away with more knowledge and a bigger network, and we asked participants to produce or table ideas for sensor journalism projects that the Tow Center can collaborate on, and fund over the next twelve months. Attendees came from the following established media organizations: The New York Times, Thomson Reuters, Newsweek/Daily Beast, Guardian US, Internews, ProPublica, NPR, WNYC, Narrative Science, Overview Project, AP, Digital First, and Earth Journalism Network. There were also attendees from Columbia University, MIT, Syracuse University, Vanderbilt University and folks from the following tech/maker groups: Mozilla, Hacks Hackers,, Open Internet Tools, Public Laboratory, Hack Manhattan, and Open News. Links to videos and blog posts documenting the event. Learn More:

Press Coverage

Paid Content.Org & GigaOm | Is Sensor Journalism Feasible, or Even Ethical? Columbia’s Tow Center Hopes to Find Out, May 16, 2013

Directions Magazine | Sensor Journalism: A New Frontier for Tech, Maps, and Ethics, May 20, 2013

The Mental Munition Factory (a data, drones and sensors blog) | Columbia’s Tow Center Is Brainstorming Sensor Journalism Projects in Workshop, May 27, 2013

Mozilla Source | Slouching Toward Sensor Journalism, June 11, 2013 | The Past, Present and Future of Sensor Journalism, June 3, 2013

Get Me Write Me | Is Sensor Journalism Feasible, or Even Ethical? Columbia’s Tow Center Hopes to Find Out, May 17, 2013

Brian House (blog) |  Sensor Workshop, June 3, 2013


The Next Twelve Months

Ongoing Collaborations

We expect that the report, workshop and pilot projects will spark great opportunities for further collaborations between the Tow Center and other parts of the digital journalism world.  We expect to use a range of technologies, including drone-mounted, arrayed, personal and communal sensors, and we intend to address pertinent stories and topics. We’ll be recording and sharing the details of each project through its lifecycle.

Teaching Resources & Curriculum

As part of the Tow Center’s mission to cultivate skilled digital journalism practitioners, key resources will go online as downloads and online courses for the wider digital journalism community.

Get Your Project Funded

We’ve made a call-out for sensor journalism ideas.