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Sensors / John Keefe and Matt Waite on The Current Possibilities

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.