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Aug. 4, 2021, 2:16 p.m.

Sensor journalism may have lost some of its buzz, but it’s also gotten cheaper and easier to pull off

Want to find out what the city is doing with homeless people’s belongings when it “clears” an encampment? An answer’s now just $29 away.

Sensor journalism — the idea of using internet-of-things-style sensors, at whatever scale, to gather data that then informs or gets turned into reporting — has lost some of the buzz it had in the mid2010s. Back then, it seemed like every big ambitious newsroom was checking ground temps in search of cicadas, measuring summer heat in Harlem apartment buildings, tracking Romanian air pollution, or uncovering toxins in West Virginia rivers.

It’s following the same path as just about every other technological innovation in reporting. New tech enables striking new work; newsrooms get increasingly ambitious with it; the tech gets cheaper and more user-friendly; the innovation becomes more accessible and less exciting. I mean, there used to be a couple Pulitzer Prize categories for “Telegraphic Reporting” — because “I knew this dude who knew Morse code” was apparently enough to distinguish your work from that of mere time-and-space-bound mortals. “Computer-assisted reporting” can sound a little dumb as a concept — what reporting these days isn’t assisted, in some way, by a computer? — but back when it was a UNIVAC instead of an iPhone, the distinction mattered.

I thought of that today when I read this story in the Portland Tribune, a free Oregon weekly:

A local lawyer claims he has ironclad proof that belongings taken during a recent campsite sweep in Portland were unlawfully dumped in the trash.

Michael Fuller, who made a last-ditch legal maneuver last week to halt the clearing of tents from Laurelhurst Park, says he surreptitiously attached Apple AirTag tracking devices to 16 personal items with permission from several campers ahead of the clean-up by city contractor Rapid Response Bio Clean.

Now, Fuller says, the wireless location signals show some of those possessions — including a pair of gloves, a speaker, two canvas paintings, and a French press — ended up at the Recology Oregon waste transfer station, 6161 N.W. 61st Ave.

“I practically begged the city not to move forward with the sweep to make sure property wasn’t being destroyed, and the city ignored me. Now there’s going to be legal consequences,” Fuller said in an interview. “It completely vindicates what the homeless people have been saying all along.”

Under Oregon law, Portland is required to collect and retain all property that is “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use” when cleaning up homeless encampments, according to OPB. The confiscated material is stored in a warehouse for 30 days, unless such items are unsanitary or have no obvious use.

Fuller says the items were clean and useful. If the city can’t offer an explanation for the apparently trashed possessions, he says his clients will seek monetary compensation for their losses.

“Due to the tracking technology, we have proof positive that Rapid Response broke the law and took property that was perfectly clean and sanitary, and belonged to homeless people, and took them to the dump,” he said.

While this particular bit of sensor investigation was done by a lawyer rather than a working journalist, you have to appreciate the simplicity of it. No need to hack any Arduinos or buy any custom “eggs”: This was literally as easy as buying a little $29 widget from the Apple Store and tying it to something. Sure, you could do something like this before, but — as usually happens with technology! — something that used to seem exotic and niche is now consumer and normal. You can get a perfectly good wireless webcam for $35 now; is there something interesting you could do journalistically with three or four of them?

“The city comes around and throws away homeless people’s stuff” is a decades-old story. But unless the reporter is in the right place at the precise right time, telling it has usually relied on the testimony of people not all of your readers will trust. It’s unfair, but many people, when faced with homeless people saying “Yes, this happens” and government officials saying “No, it doesn’t,” tend to believe the latter. Now, with some little Apple-branded sensors from your local mall, there’s proof — proof that’d be hard for anyone to discount or ignore.

That seems worth $29 to me. Here’s to “sensor-assisted reporting” someday sounding as outdated as “computer-assisted reporting,” and to this sort of work someday being a standard part of a reporter’s toolkit.

POSTED     Aug. 4, 2021, 2:16 p.m.
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