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March 19, 2013, 2:55 p.m.

The cicadas are coming: WNYC’s tracker is the latest sign of the rise of sensor news networks

Cheap, easy-to-use hardware is making it simple for journalists to create their own data sets. But what should they do with them?


Cicadas are harmless, albeit somewhat disgusting. Every 17 years, Brood II cicadas come out of the ground in swarms from as far south as Virginia to as far north as Connecticut. They don’t do much beyond make a lot of noise. Typically, they appear when the temperature eight inches below the surface hits 64 degrees. But if no public health or environmental group is regularly taking that measurement, how are we to know when winged creatures will emerge from the earth?

keefeEnter John Keefe, WNYC’s Data News Team editor and self-appointed tinkerer. Keefe says he’d been playing around with low-cost sensor hardware in his free time when the idea of doing a cicada-tracking project came up at work. At a public radio hackathon, Keefe suggested a project in which WNYC members would buy temperature sensor hardware and report their findings to the station in order to predict the fateful day.

“We actually walked out of the hackathon down the street to Radio Shack, just to see if we could buy the parts we needed,” Keefe said. “We bought a bunch of parts, went back, and started assembling the sensors, the code to run them, and the website that would host that information.” That led to Cicada Tracker.

The idea of gathering vast amounts of public data through inexpensive sensor hardware has been gaining steam. After the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, a group of hardware scientists started tracking radiation independent of the government using sensors. NPR’s Javaun Moradi wrote a blog post in 2011 about Pachube (now Cosm) a company that was tracking air quality in cities. Behavio, a company that won $355,000 in Knight funding last year, is dedicated to turning smartphones into data gathering devices through sensor apps to help track “trends in community data.”

So what starts with bugs could grow into something more. “This is a novel and fun thing to do,” Keefe says of the Cicada Tracker, “but this is a prototype for maybe something even more serious.” Through a partnership with Columbia University’s School of Public Health, for instance, WNYC will soon be tracking air pollution by having a biker carry a smartphone equipped with a sensor. Down the road, Keefe said he would also be interested in tracking noise pollution, another major public health issue in the city.

“WNYC for a long time has been a leader with experimenting with crowdsourcing and data news. This is almost like experimenting with crowd hardware hacking,” says Keefe,”We’re trying to go into this arena of independent sensors built and run by a crowd to collect information that might not otherwise be available. We’re creating our own data set.”

For Moradi, who was part of a SXSW panel on the rise of sensors, reporters using distributed technology to gather information is a natural next step in data journalism.

“Just because you can collect something doesn’t mean that it’s valuable.”

“We used to have to scrape data or FOIA it,” he said. “Then we moved into this era of open data where we asked people to release their data in machine-readable formats to spare us that clean up. We’re moving into this era now where data is coming from everywhere. It’s coming from consumer devices we own and devices we might make, and we’re going to have to deal with that at some point.”

Open data has meant an onslaught of new information to organize and analyze, but it’s also made more evident the gaps in the information government agencies have or are willing to provide. At the same time, open source hardware boards like Arduino, Adafruit, SparkFun and Raspberry Pi and have made sensor technologies much more affordable. Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, says as people become more interested in “citizen science” hardware, the technology is only getting more affordable. “This is about as close to a disposable computer that you can get. I want to put something on this and fire it out of a cannon, because why not — it’s 35 bucks.”

WNYC’s Cicada Tracker is a little more expensive than that; it requires an Arduino board and some parts from Radio Shack’s SideKick kit. They estimate the whole thing would cost a participant around $80 and can be assembled in around an hour. “It’s not a basic-level science project. It’s more of an intermediate science project,” Keefe said. “But we’ve run it past a few people who’ve been able to do it pretty easily. If you can stick little wires in little holes, you can basically make it happen.” (The station is also promoting an $8 soil thermometer as a not-quite-as-cool alternative to going full Arduino.)


When talking about the scope of what sensor networks can accomplish, the most lauded experiment by far is Safecast. Faced with a lack of information about the radiation in the air, hardware scientists around Fukushima came together independently to try and provide better information about public safety. Moradi praised Safecast for the rigor with which it collected and cleaned reliable data.

aqilogo_smWaite is skeptical about the idea that sensitive measurements, like those required for a project on the scale of Safecast, can be done well with inexpensive hardware. “One legitimate concern about doing this is, you’re talking about doing it with the cheapest software you can find. It’s not expertly calibrated. It’s not as sensitive as it possibly could be.” Most of the more exciting possibilities for sensor journalism require a scale or timeliness that can alter the accessibility threshold. “When you add in timeliness,” Waite says, “it’s probably going to be wireless, which adds a level of complexity, and it’s got to have a pretty rapid time frequency. You also have a problem of reliability — if it’s timely, it’s got to work at the time you need it to work.” So while crowd-tracking cicadas with hardware for under $80 might be doable for a news organization, grander ambitions for sensor journalism might require a higher level of expertise. Consider air pollution: For any given pollutant, “you or I would be hard pressed to understand if 2 ppb [parts per billion] is good or bad,” Moradi said, “which is why the EPA developed an air quality index with a color-coded system.”

Currently, affordable sensors are limited to recording temperatures, noise, movement, and, to a certain extent, pollutants. Moradi said the key is starting with a question, and then asking if sensors are the best way to answer that question. He cited a WNYC crowdsourcing project that looked at measuring snowfall via sensors. “They found them inaccurate,” Moradi says, and ultimately had listeners measure snow the old-fashioned way: with a yardstick. “Just because you can collect something doesn’t mean that it’s valuable,” says Moradi. You have to ask: Does the data answer questions that anybody actually cares about?

“The problem is not the hardware,” Waite says. “It’s not figuring out what you need to know to connect a sensor to a microcontroller and report data out to it, or even pump that data out to the Internet. Honestly, it’s creativity. It’s expanding your mind and thinking about what could you do with this, given time and scale.” But there are some interesting unanswered questions for sensors on the table: mapping traffic routes, locating open roads during natural disasters, building independent traffic bureaus, and maybe, Waite said, monitoring Nebraska’s ongoing drought. Waite recently helped Dan Sinker host a mini hardware hackathon aimed at helping developers “dip their foot in the pool and think about what’s possible in hardware.” One idea that came out of a panel Sinker hosted on hardware hacking at SXSW was to use noise sensors to track gunshots in regions of Mexico too dangerous for journalists to work in.

As experimentation with information gathering through hardware moves forward, however, there’s a natural concern over privacy and other ethical issues. Waite says there’s a growing divide between developers who want to focus on sensor apps for smartphones and those who think data should be tracked only by devices built for that purpose. “Journalists have used things in the past like hidden cameras to gather data,” he said. “I could see journalists using things like these in much the same way.”

This is relatively new ethical territory, and the technology is outpacing the legal framework for dealing with the implications. Beyond whether or not you can spy on your neighbor using some basic hardware, there is the question of access to one’s own personal data. Smartphone sensors can easily serve to track someone’s comings and goings.

But in between the engineers and the lawyers, there’s still room for journalists in the nascent world of sensor networks. The way forward seems to be through collaboration partnerships with interest organizations and government agencies. Journalists may not always have the technical skills, but they have access to audience. “They may know their locality, their town,” Moradi said. “They can bring the projects in, convene the people from civic organizations, from government.” Public media seems like a particularly sound fit. “I think the fact that public radio has been a member organization, that you have people who are passionate and interested in the medium and the content, has been a real benefit to us,” says Keefe. “We have great hosts and loyal listeners and we’re working in the public interest — that’s sort of what we’ve been chartered to do. They come together in a way that is able to motivate people that is different from a commercial organization.”

Whether that level of engagement is deep enough to drive WNYC members out to Radio Shack in droves remains to be seen. Just in case it isn’t, the station has set up about a dozen of their own sensors throughout the region, so they can at least get the chance to see if it works. Waite says in his experience building hardware for journalism, the best thing to do is get an engineer in the room: “These are not issues that journalists have had to consider: How reliable is my wireless sensor node? And how robust is my mesh network? Engineers have been talking about this stuff for a long time.” Waite believes journalists will have to look outside their traditional institutions if they want to move forward.

“We all think journalism is so special and journalism problems are unique to journalism, and they’re really not. So many other things can be applied to journalism so quickly and expand the boundaries and we really ought to take the opportunity to do that.”

Photo by Pete Lounsbury used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 19, 2013, 2:55 p.m.
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