When Lily Bui visited our Data visualization class at Emerson College, it was clear that she had a passion for sensor journalism and was excited to talk to a group of young journalists about what she hopes is a contagious spirit of experimentation in the field.
Bui is an advocate of sensor journalism; and in one of her many posts on the subject, she says that she “strongly believes that pairing sensor technology and data with meticulous reporting can potentially help solve some of the world’s big problems, all while engaging more people with the media and science in the process.”
I was personally intrigued by this idea. I chose a career in communications because I always felt it was the best tool we have as humans to understand society and the world around us. I know that many of my classmates and future co-workers probably felt the same way when they entered this field.
Bui talked for about an hour about how sensor journalism can shed light on local and global problems through generating data to inspire storytelling, all while engaging the people around it. I could not help but think about my country (Venezuela) and other developing countries around the world. My country with its corrupt government, crippled economy, and politicized judicial system currently faces a number of problems, the majority of which are kept in the dark. People can’t really understand the causes of these issues because information is censored and manipulated by the people in power. Why is there no food in the super markets? Sadly, the ordinary citizen doesn’t really know. The government gives an explanation, the opposition refutes it and gives another one, and between all the noise, information quietly slips from the public's hands.
The few independent news outlets that have tried to explain the shortage in basic products and necessities run the risk of being prosecuted or shut down. And between muted journalists, censored reports, and closed government data, journalism usually can’t go beyond the “he said, she said” format, and therefore does not report on the core of the problems.
But what if people had direct access to that information? Can sensor journalism help bring awareness to the million of ghost problems behind the country’s crisis? I don’t know if it can, but it surely can try.
Venezuela’s streets are plagued with violence. It would be ideal if I could now add a statistic for the number of armed robberies and violent kidnappings in the country, but I don’t have one, and at this point you can imagine why. Thousands if not millions of violent cases go unreported every year, and sensor journalism can help change that.
A rough draft of what could be a possible project comes to my mind. I Imagine launching an app that people could use to report where and at what time they where robbed/kidnapped. They could also add details of the incident, such as, number of assailants, if they were armed or not, etc. I could use this data to produce a type of heat map showing “red zones” for places with most incidents recorded, and blue zones for more secure neighborhoods. Reports, however, would remain anonymous for the safety of the app users. As the Tow Center’s article “Sensors and Journalism” suggests, I would combine the “sensor-based reporting with other journalistic tools including personal interviews and show-leather reporting, so that the data can be incorporated with context, narrative and emotion."
I can picture something like the Washington Post’s ShotSpotter story. The journalist heading the report, David Fallis, used an existing sensor- a daily operational tool used by police to detect gun shots- to create patterns of violence around the city. Fallis was not interested in giving its audience the raw data (the million of gunshots detected by the system), but rather, in detecting patterns, awaking curiosity, and in his own words making "sense out of stuff.”
I would not use the data to try and have the criminals jailed, frankly I don’t think the government would allow police to use the information. And as cruel as it might sound, I would not look at each case separately. Instead, I would use all the reports as a whole to paint a picture of the violence in the country, and prove with data what otherwise is manipulated and hidden by the government. The app would combine the different victim’s stories to describe a reality.
As idealistic as this idea might sound, it would be difficult to have my work published. Most publications would turn their back on me and I would probably end up in jail. In 2010, my country amended a law banning content that could “incite or promote hatred,” “foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order,” “disrespect authorities,” “encourage assassination,” or “constitute war propaganda.” Since then, this law has been used to restrict freedom of expression and intimidate journalists.
But still, the idea of the app is viable. The app would make it possible for the ordinary citizen to report the truth. The government would try to mute their voices, as they do with journalists, but this time they would have to fight a much louder voice. Sensor journalism would invite every Venezuelan to bring awareness to a latent problem that the government ignores.
A number of drawbacks come to my mind. People would have the option to report false incidents, many incidents would remain unreported because not everyone has access to a smartphone, the government would come up with a way to intimidate the public so they won’t use the app, the app would cost a lot of money, I would dedicate a lot of time to a single story that will not get published by a local publication, etc.
The fact that I would find a way to shed light to one of my country’s many problems outweighs all the setbacks. And this is an important part of sensor journalism. Yes, the journalist would have to go the extra mile, team up with experts, try to become an expert, invest time and money, rely in crowdsourcing, and dedicate endless hours to fact checking, but all for a result that no matter how small, would not have been obtained otherwise.
The experiments we conducted in class with Don Blair, using Coqui sensors to test conductivity in water, made me realize that sensor journalism is not as expensive and abstract as it seems. In a matter of minutes we were able to assemble a tool that gave us conductivity information. We did not know how accurate that information was, but we had built a base of what with more work could become a precise sensor.
I don’t want to sound too naïve or passionate about the idea but I do believe sensor journalism can help journalists discover stories that are too deep and scattered to be found using other tools. There are still too many quirks in the subfield but technology will eliminate them with time. It is a different kind of journalism, distinct from the fast-paced mainstream reporting that overflows our field, but I hope it is as contagious as Bui suggests.