Sensing the news

Jayla at the event

(Ready for #Techraking! Photo by Isaac Brambila)

What is sensor journalism?

I found out this weekend at San Diego State University’s “Sensing the News” conference — hosted by its School of Journalism and Media Studies and The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Students collaborated with innovators and journalists from across the country to engage in workshops, discussions, and team projects. Groups also competed by pitching their ideas to a panel of judges.

Organized by our very own Dr. Schmitz Weiss, I had high hopes for the event. It exceeded my expectations.

Defining sensor journalism

“A sensor is something that reacts predictably to its environment and can measure some aspect of it,” said guest speaker Lily Bui, PhD student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Journalists are now using sensors to develop, strengthen, and discover stories. In 2015, Dr. Schmitz Weiss led a class of journalism and geology students at SDSU to build electronic open-source sensors to test and monitor air quality in San Diego. Through using data-driven journalism techniques, the class found unique stories about San Diego’s air. Sensors made the stories possible.

The experience

The conference consisted of workshops, panelist discussions, guest speakers — even a Skype call with Safecast co-founder and global director Sean Bonner — and hands-on challenges. I tackled each challenge with my team, “Wildlife Patrol” (the name will make sense soon).

My team:

  • Travis Good, co-founder and producer of the San Diego Maker Faire
  • Lila Higgins, manager of the Citizen Science at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
  • Yoohyun Jung, education reporter from the Arizona Daily Star
Jayla working with her group

I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Travis, Lila, and Yoohyun. Here, we are creating posters for the pitch.

Concepts and techniques

We first learned how to build a temperature and humidity sensor. Each team received a Ziploc bag of supplies including wires, a raspberry Pi, a breadboard, and more. Michael Corey, CIR senior news applications developer, provided step-by-step instructions. My perspective changed throughout the experience. As I held the sensor in my hands, I realized the growing opportunities for journalism to thrive.

Following the project, we were asked to brainstorm story ideas. The first brainstorming technique prompted us to consider the following about a community we know well:

  • What excites you the most?
  • What scares you the most?
  • What do you really just not understand?
  • What’s going to be the biggest problem in five years?
post-it notes

Each team member received Post-it notes to write their ideas and share on the wall. Ironically, pink is my lucky color. (Photo by Jayla Lee)

Forming the idea

As a Sacramento-native, I came to the conference with a concern for the safety of my loved ones back home experiencing excessive rain and flooding. My family and friends live beside the Sacramento River and need to know when the water rises to concerning levels. To give them that, I proposed to measure when water levels reach certain heights on the levee using ultrasonic or pressure sensors. In the end, we would create an app alerting community members and the media, also providing an interface for anyone to check water levels at any time.

While my team supported this idea, we were also passionate about using sensors to serve and preserve wildlife. We decided to investigate national parks along the U.S.-Mexico Border — a topic Yoohyun had significant experience in covering. We proposed using sensors to measure the compactness of soil. Additionally, we would place three cameras on land to track the safety of the park’s animals. These sensor tactics would allow us to make conclusions about the living conditions for wildlife. In the end, we would create online resources to shed light on the issue.

Challenges — and overcoming

Our group faced the challenge of time. We each had a great deal of passion… how could we fit it to just a few minutes in the pitch? However, the struggle also proved we did something right. It reminded me of the readings in JMS 527. A clear sign of a brilliant idea: you cannot stop talking about it.

As for me, I faced the challenge of vulnerability. I lacked confidence in my knowledge of sensor journalism going into the day. Lucky for me — I was more curious than anything. I soon realized conferences are an excellent opportunity for people who “don’t know” because they will know. Conferences encourage questions. The leaders there want to help you succeed.

Three key take-aways

  1. Be brave. “You shouldn’t be afraid to learn the science behind what you are covering,” said inewsource executive director and editor Lorie Hearn.
  2. Be human. “I’m always trying to put the participant first, trying to make sure their voice is at the table even when they are not at the table,” Lila said of citizen science.
  3. Believe. Leaving the workshop, I ran into Christine Sunu, creative director of flashBANG Product Development. I blurted in honesty that she is where I want to be someday — brilliant, thriving in her field. She replied, “It’s very doable.” The only thing getting in your way is saying that you can’t.

Moving forward

Discussing innovation and entrepreneurship in the JMS 527 classroom prepared me to take on “Sensing the News” with an open heart and mind. Now, I feel inspired to kick my business plan into gear. I understand the excitement of getting out the Post-it notes, sharpies, and rolling up your sleeves. Planning is the fun part. You can be messy and colorful. You can toss things out. You are free to be creative and yourself… the best part about the journey.

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