The Wild Wired West – How environment journalism can put sensors to use

Standard operating procedure, for the majority of journalists working with data, has been to analyze information generated by someone else; whether government agencies like the EPA, or researchers working in the university sector. However, as the dividing lines between technologists and journalists blur, sensing technology is becoming cheaper, and possibilities are emerging for journalists to be pro-active in taking recordings of our physical surroundings – of light, heat, sound, pressure, vibration, air quality, moisture, radioactivity, pollution – generating data that increases the depth and range of the kind of stories they can tell. Meanwhile, drones, (sometimes called small-unmanned aerial vehicles or sUAVs), equipped with cameras and a variety of sensors, are becoming more common and economical. With the help of a collaborative, public-minded hacker culture, these sensors can be programmed to record specific data—particles in the air, conversations on the ground, 3D topographical maps, or toxins indiscernible to human senses. With stealth, mobility and sensing capabilities, drones and sensor networks present a new range of possibilities for environmental journalism.

Mapping Disasters

“Sensors are like our senses—at scale,” says Matthew Waite, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab, a pioneer in the field. Sensors can be deployed to give massive scale environmental stories an immediate, personal, or, as Waite puts it, “selfish” context. Sensors can answer questions of individual interest, such as: ‘Will the flood surge reach my lawn?’ ‘Is toxic run-off getting into my water supply?’ Or, as his lab enquired last summer: ‘Has my city’s main water source dried up?’ “Last year, Nebraska had 9.5 inches of rain in the entire year,” Waite says. “It was the worst drought since the Dust Bowl.” With the help of an unmanned aerial vehicle, his lab sought to investigate “a proof of concept drone journalism story”: whether the Platte River, a significant water source that runs the length of the state, had gone bone-dry over the summer. (It had.) Waite’s work collected arresting aerial images without the expense of flying a manned helicopter. He also developed a DIY sensor kit which detects how dry the soil in his backyard is, and uploads the results to be collated and graphed. While the drone-collected images visualized the story, the backyard soil sensor laid down what Waite suggests is an important precept for crowd-sourced, collaborative sensor journalism culture: “Harnessing selfish interest to look at communal topics.”

For those interested in filming extreme weather systems, a decidedly perilous activity, drones can serve as “data mules” controlled from a safe distance. In April 2011, Aaron Brodie, a freelance photojournalist and producer for CNN, who is also a radio-controlled aircraft hobbyist, used a drone to capture footage of an intensely violent EF4 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Sensor data can help track disasters and map out where a city’s weakest spots lie. With the so-called 100-year-disaster becoming an annual affair, the Open Infrared (OpenIR) project by the Brooklyn-based DuKode Studio, translates geo-located infrared satellite data into map layers, each of them conveying information on water depths, oil spread, fault lines, burn scars, elevation, vegetation, and built-up areas—all valuable information during times of crises. After Sandy, they generated a Flood Risk Index Map for New York, showing extracted environment features, an approach that they say “has proven effective in showing, for public access, the populated low-lying regions most vulnerable to flood damage.” The studio’s co-founder, Arlene Ducao, is currently working on a similar mapping project that’ll highlight areas of acute ecological vulnerability in Indonesia, which she hopes will help in emergency preparedness in a rapidly developing region besieged by disasters: floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and climate change.

Monitoring and Detecting Pollution

As flexible and cheap sensing machines, drones are ideal companions for enterprising investigative journalists, particularly those interested in interrogating official data—or catching polluters red-handed. In January 2012, a sUAV hobbyist flying his drone over the Trinity River in Texas saw it had captured images of a blood-red creek. An investigation later revealed that the culprit was the Oak Cliff slaughterhouse, which was funneling pig blood straight into a creek that flowed into the river.

Low-tech DIY tools, borne on kites and balloons, can be just as effective, as Liz Barry and her collaborators at the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) demonstrate. They use a simple and ingenious combination of kites, balloons, and cheap point-and-shoot cameras to investigate everything from illegal logging in the Czech republic to the 2010 oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. The balloon-borne cameras that Barry’s team sent sailing over the spill site generated 700,000 images and dozens of maps across 200 miles of shoreline. The images she captured as a “spontaneous response to the crisis”—to aid boats and crews on the clean up—are now making their way through the courts as evidence.

PLOTS have been focusing its efforts closer home of late. With the help of infrared and thermal imaging, they are conducting extensive aerial surveys of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, a Superfund site chockfull of carcinogenic Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). The inquiry, according to the PLOTS website, “seeks to address the 300M gallons of untreated sewage that will continue entering the canal yearly even after the EPA finishes their Superfund cleanup of the toxic sediments at the bottom of the canal.”

Albert Chao is a collaborator on the Air Quality Egg, a low-cost, relatively imprecise sensor system that samples NO2 and CO2 concentrations—an index of air pollution—outside the homes of participants around the world. His project functions on the sensor journalism precept that Waite subsequently laid out—using crowd-sourced personal interest data to draw communal-interest conclusions. But Chao’s project also reveals an interesting limitation of user-generated data. The sensors we use are really cheap, and uncalibrated,” Chao concedes, “and we’ve made that clear many, many times. But hopefully after a while, we can get a critical mass, and we’ll start to see trends in the data.”

Cheap and accurate air quality sensors are a sought-after but currently unavailable technology.  Chao points out that the least expensive, most accurate air quality sensor on the market costs $120. The DIY sensor in the Air Quality Egg can be cobbled together at a price point of around $10.

Interrogating Government Data

A similar air sampling effort made headlines on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As John Keefe, WNYC’s data news editor explained, the MIT Civic Data Design Lab collaborated with the Associated Press to question the Chinese government’s official data on particulate matter pollution and carbon monoxide levels. To pull this off, the reporters used handheld aerosol monitoring systems, which, as Keefe pointed out, the team had smuggled in pretending they were camera equipment. They used the sensors to chart, in real time, the heightened levels of particulate matter and carbon monoxide near Olympic venues around Beijing, contradicting the official line.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear meltdown in Japan, the public was skeptical of the data the government was releasing on radiation leaks. At this point, a grassroots radiation sensor network, powered by DIY Geiger counters, provided journalists and the public with an alternative set of numbers—from as many as 7 million data points. The project was led by SafeCast, an intercontinental network of hackers, in collaboration with a computer communications professor at Keio University.

Sometimes, data is not willfully falsified, but just buried under layers of dirt and neglect. USA Today’s award-winning Ghost Factories project revisited more than 230 long-defunct lead smelting sites across the country, and used (rented out) $41,000 hand-held XRF analyzers to test 800 surface soil samples, generating entirely new data that showed alarmingly high levels of soil contamination in public parks and residential neighborhoods across 13 states. The team had the samples independently verified by a soil-sampling expert, Howard Mielke of Tulane University, who conducted field tests to measure lead levels, first absorbing it from the soil using nitric acid, and then analyzing samples through atomic absorption spectroscopy.

#Tracking Ecology and Wildlife

National Geographic photographer Michael Nickols uses a small arsenal of remote-controlled micro-copters, night-vision goggles, infrared cameras and sophisticated camera-traps to take thrillingly intimate pictures of lions and sprawling aerial images of wildebeest migrations.

Aaron Huslage, a North Carolina-based hacker and citizen scientist, once part of the Safecast team, has now turned his attentions to mapping the mangrove ecosystems outside Doha in Qatar, along with Qatar Foundation International and Conservation International. For environmentalists interested in climate change, mangroves serve two purposes; they mitigate the cause while indicating the severity. Mangroves absorb large amounts of CO2, converting it into oxygen as all plants do, but they’re also vulnerable to changes in their habitat. Huslage’s project deploys temperature and CO2 sensors into mangrove fields off Al Dhakira, north of Doha. The pods sense the health of the mangrove fields and send their data back to a central field hub, which uploads the data to the internet over cellular connections. Huslage says his intention is to “raise awareness about them through remote sensing data—and bring quantifiable data to the party.”

Cicada Tracker, another citizen science effort run by by WNYC and Radiolab, has no problem attracting people to the party. Once every 17 summers, cicadas emerge when the soil 8 inches below ground hits a steady 64°F.  About 300 participants have joined in the project; planting home-built temperature sensors in their yards, and through 1700 data points, they’re helping predict this year’s ‘Swarmaggedon’.

Ethical Caveats

Sensors may be able to generate enterprising, public-spirited journalism, but it is not without risks. The maker culture nurturing sensor journalism fosters a collaborative, innovate-as-you-go spirit, and encourages important partnerships between data scientists, technicians, statisticians, journalists, hackers, experts in specific research domains, and citizen science enthusiasts. But with new endeavors come new ethical questions.

Foremost among these is privacy. There are, at this point, no privacy or trespass laws that specifically relate to non-recreational domestic drone operations. In addition the increasing sophistication of data mining, correlation and triangulation techniques mean that when a journalist decides to create and publish new data about a person – even supposedly anonymized data, they run the risk of inadvertently compromising privacy. The organizers of the Cicada Tracker had to exclude the data generated by at least one person, who was under a protective order, for fear of tipping off a former acquaintance of their whereabouts.

Legal protection or redress is not a possibility just yet. Although these technologies are rapidly advancing, the law is slow to catch up. Kord Davis, author of ‘Ethics of Big Data: Balancing Risk and Innovation’, puts it succinctly: “It’s never possible to act on a law that doesn’t exist yet.” As Professor Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz  says,, laws are often written only in reaction to events, and even then, they have narrow, focused scopes. For instance, Judge Bork’s video rental history was leaked to the press, and despite its innocuousness, the press published. This led to the passing of the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act. “The law is reactive in nature,” points out Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz a Research Professor of Law at the National center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law. “Courts don’t look for problems to solve.”

The second concern is that of accuracy. The field of journalism has had far more experience establishing truth in the social sciences than in the sciences of maths, statistics and physical measurements. “Data is not information,” says Gabrynowicz. “It gets sliced, diced and chopped up. Interpreting it is more than a science—it’s an art.” Despite the traditional appeal of the lone wolf journalist uncovering scandals a la Upton Sinclair, 21st century sensor journalism cannot, in the interest of fairness and accuracy, avoid collaborations with data scientists and researchers or technicians in relevant fields.