The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at UC Berkeley organized on April 30th a conference on “Sensor Networks and Emerging Technology for Environmental Journalism” with research scientists, technology experts and journalists speaking of how new technologies are disrupting the way we collect data about the environment, and so environmental journalism. This event was especially organized by James Fahn whoteaches a graduate level course in international environmental reporting and oversees the Earth Journalism Scholars program at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. James is Executive Director, Earth Journalism Network atInternews, a non-profit project that connects and supports over 4,500 journalists around the world.
Some new tools to monitor the environment
The disruption comes from new tools that enhance a democratization of the ability to monitor the environment, that is mainly collecting data about air quality and noise.
At first, sensors have become a lot cheaper than a few years ago. Everybody can now buy an air quality sensor and assess by himself how breathable is the air around him. With the drone technology that has also become more affordable, small cameras or sensors can fly over hardly accessible areas or between skyscrapers in cities to collect data that usually require a huge deployment of fixed sensors.
What could really set up a new deal is the “mobile sensing”: smartphones already have technology that allow to catch what is happening around you, by taking a picture or recording the noise level. Even without a scientific protocol, the amount of crowdsourced data can reach a threshold that is enough to reflect the actual situation.
Moreover, sensors and drones can even be self-made. Matthew Schroyer, a communications specialist with the quantitative skills of a data analyst and engineer, develops Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) for environmental journalism and data journalism. He also created a small, WiFi-connected device called “DustDuino” that measures particular matter (PM), a major component of air pollution. Every 30 seconds, the device uses an infrared dust sensor to measure the amount of particulates in the air, and sends the data to Xively.com, which stores and graphs the data for anyone to see. Based on the prototyping platform Arduino, he is intending to release the plans and custom printed circuit boards this summer, so as everybody will be able to monitor air quality.
Increasing government accountability on environmental factors
Those news tools or ways of environmental data gathering have various applications, including the support of law enforcement, the improvement of citizens’ awareness and likely the most important, an increase of government accountability regarding environmental data.
Some examples will be the best way to illustrate these points.
Regarding law enforcement, CargoTracck, a technology leader in Brazil, uses its device Invisible Track to thwart illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Local cellular networks together with Gemalto’s M2M technology send location updates from sensors in trees to a central server allowing officials to remotely track trees removed from protected areas.
The low price of sensors can also enhance an improvement people’s awareness on environmental issues. Eric Paulos, Assistant Professor in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM) with a faculty appointment within the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) at UC Berkeley, developed craft balloons that change colors based on local air quality. Using weather balloons with tri-color LEDs, tiny air quality sensors, rechargeable batteries, and a few other inexpensive materials that can all be found at craft stores or online, people can make their own giant glowing balloons.
The democratization of sensors is above all a way to make government more accountable of environment quality. This gives more power to people that can collect data by themselves and gather them to reach a critical number that forces the government to take action. For instance, the New Delhi government is in denial of the air pollution issue in the city where there is only 4 sensing stations, while in Beijing, the government is forced to take action as 70-80% of the population is complaining about air quality every day.
What is the future of sensing?
During the Q&A session, this interesting question has been raised, meaning: if you dream of the revolutionary sensor, what would it be? It appears that a small water sensor, a little device that you can just drop into water and that tells you if you can drink it, will be really disruptive, simply because it will be life saving.
Technology is thus a new tool for the journalists. Let’s hope they will leverage it to carry on impartial reports of events.