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June 3, 2013, 10 a.m.

The cicadas are here: 4 lessons from WNYC’s Cicada Tracker project

We have the hardware, the software, and the crowds. What’s next?


When cicadas start coming out of the ground, it’s called a bloom. Different types of cicadas are separated into different broods. When a cicada first crawls out of the earth, it’s called a nymph.

This entomology jargon is a small part of the body of knowledge that WNYC’s Cicada Tracker has brought to both public radio listeners and staffers alike. We wrote about the project just after it launched back in March, touching on the future possibilities for data journalism in which the data is collected by tiny, inexpensive bits of hardware. The Cicada Project was among the first large scale experiments of this kind, with the goal of predicting the moment when this year’s brood would emerge by crowdsourcing ground temperature readings.

Did they succeed?

John Keefe, senior editor of data news at WNYC and the man behind the project, says yes. “I think it’s been a really cool success in these unexpected ways,” he says. “We set out to see if we could get people to participate in a pretty complicated project.”

The Cicada Tracker ultimately received nearly 1,500 temperature readings from listeners, many of whom made the kits distributed by the radio station or made their own. Since posting a sightings survey on their website, Keefe says they’ve received over 2,000 different reports. “Now, we’re kind of the go-to place for the map of cicadas,” Keefe said. “Everyone’s coming to us.”

Whether or not they exactly predicted the moment the first cicada’s hindquarters wriggled out of the earth, the project has become an important hub for a number of interested parties and an important milestone for public media and the power of crowdsourcing. Keefe says they learned a lot about what’s possible from the project, and shared four major takeaways about what the cicada tracker means for journalism, science, innovation and community.

“The only question left is: What stories do we want to chase?”

The most important lesson of the project, Keefe says, is that it proves all the necessary parts for this kind of journalism are accessible and in order. “It’s showing that the hardware and the software are doable. A lot of people could have told you that years ago — but now it’s really, clearly possible,” Keefe says.

The hardware actually proved to be more than doable during the Cicada Tracker Project. The original kit WNYC had participants building was comprised of parts from Radio Shack and an Arduino board and cost around $80. Within a few weeks of the project’s launch, however, a member of Hack Manhattan contacted Keefe and said he could get the cost down to around $16.

“It involved us having to program a chip ourselves to give to people. We mailed them all over New Jersey. We gave them out at a museum here in town. They were all assembled by people at a Brooklyn Brewery event we had. That’s just an amazing story right there.”

And it gets more amazing. A few weeks later, Keefe says, “the same guy sent the plan for that to China and had fifty of them come back at about a buck a piece.”

But Keefe says it wasn’t just about making sure the technical aspects were workable — crowdsourcing doesn’t work without the crowd. Another victory for the Cicada Tracker was proving not only that there was widespread audience for this kind of story, but also widespread interest in participation.

“The software and the hardware are not out of reach. The crowds are not out of reach, especially in public media,” says Keefe. “The only question left is, what stories do we want to chase?”

Raising the bar on engagement

But of course, it’s not just the crowds, it’s what the crowds are willing to do.

“I was recently speaking on a panel about engagement on websites. They’re talking about liking things, leaving comments…it’s kind of interesting because here I was, also on the panel, and first of all, I’m in public media. If we don’t have engagement, we won’t exist. We have to ask people for money and they have to send it to us…But also, here, we have almost 3,500 instances of people collecting information, whether the temperature of the soil or the fact that they see cicadas…They’re not getting their opinions out. It’s not about comments. It’s basically people working together toward a common goal that’s kind of cool and kind of fun, but it takes more than writing a couple words in a comment box. You have to actually see something, or build this kit, or get a thermometer. So in terms of engagement as a buzzword, I think this is a pretty advanced version of that,” Keefe says.

There was some discussion in our last piece on this topic about why public radio listeners are an unusually good match for crowdsourced projects, but that’s not the only thing Keefe had going for him. We’ve also heard in the past about the power to be harnessed from niche interest groups, finding the audience where they already are. Keefe says there is a robust community around physical computing right now that will propel any project like the Cicada Tracker forward.

But there’s also a significant population of people who are interested in bugs and entomology, both scientific and amateur.

It was their inherent interest that radically lowered the cost threshold of the project — and that also got a group of researchers from the University of Connecticut involved, thereby significantly expanding the reach and heft of an idea that began as a hackathon prototype. These are important examples of a new kind of engagement, in which the audience can give back to the story in a concretely valuable way.

“The nexus of public media, science, and the audience”

The involvement of the UConn entomologists is exciting for WNYC, because it justifies that the work they’re doing is important, and that the data they are gathering is of real value. The researchers helped the station design a survey form for their site where people can submit details on when and where they first saw cicadas emerge. The responses are fed to the researchers who, as of this writing, are busily tracking the cicadas northward from North Carolina to Virginia by car.

But the benefit to the scientists is even greater. Professor Chris Simon says she’s been tracking cicadas for many years, trying to figure out what lies behind unusual genetic development in the cicada’s transition from larva to adult. “Our work will help to show how a common genetic mechanism can be modified (probably by a few simple changes) to produce a radically different phenotype,” she says.

Simon first tried crowdsourcing as a method of research and data gathering in 1979. “I wrote an article in Natural History Magazine and asked for letters, postcards, and specimens,” she says. “I got thousands of replies.”

Of course, there are still things possible through digital technology that were not possible before. Simon says to map the mailed data points would have taken months, compared to a data map that can update live. Simon says she was surprised by the level of human resources that the radio station made available to the project, but there are some wrinkles in the collaboration. To eradicate the problem of replicating data points, WNYC has to eventually merge their data with the researchers’ table. Sion says it would be much easier if WNYC directed participants to the site she’s been using for years,

Ultimately, Simon says the project has made her look forward to next year, when a new brood of cicadas will emerge in other parts of the country. WNYC reached out to radio stations there about continuing the project before the idea even occurred to Simon, she says.

“To document more examples of four-year jumps, we are using crowdsourcing to locate individuals that come out in odd years or in odd places for a particular year,” she says. “We are also using crowdsourcing to help find the boundaries of each brood or year class. We then go in ourselves and map the brood edges carefully.”  

Julia Kumari Drapkin is another radio journalist trying to capture the power of public media loyalty for the benefit of public health. Kumari Drapkin received funding from the Association of Independents in Radio’s Localore project to go to rural Colorado and crowdsource information and opinions about climate change. While she found that farmers were much more interested in talking in person than in regularly texting in data about rainfall, temperature, and crop yields, she nonetheless was able to build a live and robust site,, that tells the story of changing weather patterns in a variety of ways. When I spoke to Kumari Drapkin a few months ago, she said the project had ignited in her a real excitement around finding the future of journalism sat the “nexus of public media, science, and the audience.”

She says she’s the Cicada Tracker is “definitely a step in the right direction,” and says she’s been watching WNYC’s progress closely.

“Everybody is curious, everybody wants to find the answer — scientists, journalists, listeners alike. When we all seek the answers together, the process is not only more efficient and informative for scientists, it’s more interesting and relevant to audiences when they can participate,” she wrote in an email. “Most importantly, it’s fun. Five-part win for journalism in the equation.”

Kumari Drapkin says she is currently working on a collaboration between her project, iSeeChange, and NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that would involve fact-checking satellite data via crowds and “near sensing what we see on the ground against what satellites are seeing from space.”

“It’s difficult to pull off,” she says, “but we believe there’s promise.”

“There was that high level of interest — not meddling, but interest.”

I asked Keefe how to make a project like this work, and he said he didn’t know. But he did have a couple of ideas.

First, the cicada project came with a built-in deadline. From the moment the idea was born at a hackathon, there was a race against the clock to get the sensors in place before the ground temperature started to rise. That kind of hard stop provides an organic impetus to work quickly and flexibly, to take risks, and to have back up plans, all of which Keefe says was essential to making the end product a possibility.

“The entire thing was a little bit crazy,” says Keefe. “We put it together pretty fast.”

But more importantly, he said the willingness of upper management to take a risk was what made the Cicada Tracker a real possibility for WNYC.

“This is going to sound super self-promotional, but it’s really not. We prototyped this at a hackathon, and the vice presidents all attended the demos, and a couple of them were saying, ‘Let’s do this.’ And I said, ‘If you want to do this, we can do this.’ And they said, ‘Go.’ And we kind of ran with it. It allowed this to happen much more quickly than it would have happened here earlier.”

The Cicada Tracker also ended up partnering with Radiolab, so there’s no doubt that the robust character of the institution helped the project along, which Keefe says is not necessarily something he could teach someone else.

For now, WNYC is keeping their next plans for sensor journalism projects and crowdsourced data under wraps, but there’s no question that it’s a burgeoning field with a lot of interest around it. This weekend, Keefe and other experts gathered for a workshop on sensor journalism at Columbia to discuss practices, applications and ethics. But Keefe, who was scheduled to speak on “Near Field Possibilities,” says that’s not the hard part.

“Journalists, whether they’re political journalists or sports journalists or data journalists, they’re taking their expertise, their knowledge of these different realms, and finding stories,” Keefe said. “I think that’s the next big challenge — what stories can we find and tell? Can we do investigative reporting this way? Is there something we can reveal that’s begin hidden? I don’t know the answers to all those things yet. But my guess is, somewhere, somehow, in some cases, the answer is yes.”

Photo by jeff-o-matic used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 3, 2013, 10 a.m.
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