Friday, January 25, 2013

Heat island effect and asthma: an argument for temperature nodes for journalists

Meteorologists shouldn’t be the only people in the news ecosystem concerned with temperature. Extreme temperatures can exacerbate food shortages, hurt the economy, affect energy prices, provoke health crises, cancel public events and disrupt public services.

At the moment, Australia is undergoing the worst heat wave it’s ever recorded. Pavement has melted, and gasoline evaporates right out of the fuel pump, making refueling a car a challenge. Fires are burning out of control in coastal regions. People have died.

It’s gotten so hot (all together now: how hot is it?) that the Australian weather service has added a new color to its heat map which denotes temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 50 degrees Celsius, or half the boiling point of water.

This also doesn’t seem like a problem that will disappear in the near future. Climate scientists believe extreme temperatures are only going to be more prevalent. Due to climate change, many parts of the world could experience more extreme high temperatures and fewer extreme low temperatures, with climate models predicting higher maximum temperatures and more heat waves in the future (Easterling et al, 2000).

By some estimates, these heat waves will increase by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next four decades (Barriopedro et al, 2011). Without countermeasures, these high temps could cause “increased adverse health impacts from heat-related mortality, pollution, storm-related fatalities and injuries, and infectious diseases” (Field et all, 2007).

Some might point out that we have a national service that tells us what the temperature is. Election forecasting virtuoso Nate Silver pointed out in his book “The Signal and the Noise” that it’s such a valuable service, in fact, that a multi-billion dollar service industry in weather forecasting has sprung up from the National Weather Service freely sharing its weather data (it should be noted that these services are providing independent forecasts, not simply repackaging NWS data).

In an age where many phones come pre-loaded with weather apps, does it make sense for a publication to have a network of temperature sensors?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Making a sensor node for journalism: picking components and 3D printing useful bits

Open-source microcontrollers can be very handy for journalists: they can fly a data-gathering drone and control a data-gathering sensor node, among other uses. Previously I wrote how sensor nodes could be useful in a journalism investigation. Now it's time to leave the theory behind, and actually prototype one of these sensor nodes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Nodes for journalists: a primer on bringing sensor data to the reporter

Drones are pretty cool, and could be pretty useful for journalists. They allow journalists to film hard-to-reach spots, such as partially-sunken cruise liners. These unmanned systems also can be used to collect geospatial data and photomaps, both of which can come in handy for a journalism investigation.

As I’ve written before, though, drones simply are remotely piloted aircraft (or watercraft). By themselves, they are not very useful tools. What actually makes them useful is that they are mobile platforms for sensors, which can collect data to guide reportage. Cameras are just one of a multitude of sensors that drones can carry into the sky.

What kind of additional sensors could you use on a drone? It’s probably easier to ask what exactly you want to measure in the environment, and then find a sensor to fit the application.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Droneveillance, and blogging for the International Symposium on Technology and Society

Lately I've found myself blogging for the International Symposium on Technology and Society, or ISTAS. It's an annual conference sponsored by IEEE (the Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers), which as its name suggests, focuses on the impact that evolving technologies have on everyday life. This year's conference will pay special consideration to the future of the smart infrastructure and surveillance:
In a world of smart things like smart lights, smart toilets, smart grids, smart meters, smart roads, and the like, what happens when you have "smart people" (i.e. put sensors on people)? What do we make of the growing numbers of businesses like department stores and restaurants that prohibit cameras, yet display QR codes that require cameras to read and understand?
It's not just about surveillance, either. Surveillance has a specific meaning, which refers to observing people or objects from an elevated position.That means surveillance is conducted by law enforcements and governments. Sousveillance, on the other hand, means observing or recording from below. When average citizens, as opposed to the government, do the recording, that's sousveillance.

How about droneveillance? Unlike fixed cameras, drones are highly mobile platforms for a variety of remote sensing devices. They're agile, relatively silent (depending on the altitude), and can even fly indoors. They've gotten especially smart at negotiating obstacles and mapping unfamiliar terrain, and they can work as a team to provide comprehensive monitoring.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Time-lapse photography with drone parts

Let’s say you’re a journalist and you want to record an important event taking place over an extended period, say 12 to 72 hours. Or even a week, or longer. If you want to record the event with video, that’s far too long to expect anyone to watch it in its entirety.

You can, however, record the whole thing and use some kind of time compression in post-production software. But if you’re recording on high definition video, you can only expect to record about four hours on a 32 gigabyte SD card. Even if you manage to capture 12 or 72 hours of high-definition video using a hard drive, it’s going to be hard to work with such a big file.

The solution is time-lapse photography, which simply means taking photos at regular intervals and turning them into individual frames on a video. During hurricane Sandy, a number of news sites and tech-savvy citizens used a time-lapse photography to document the storm's impact on New York City (below). If you’re not in a hurricane-prone area, you can find other weather-related applications for this technique, such as recording a flood-prone area during a storm.

Of course, you could just as easily record important non-weather events, such as big construction projects, or traffic on a bottlenecked road. Compressing these large-scale but slow-moving events into a one or two-minute clip makes for dramatic video.

At its most basic, you only need two things to pull off a time-lapse video. You’ll at least need a camera equipped with an intervalmeter (a fancy way of saying it can be programmed to take photos at regular intervals), and software to turn the photos into videos.

A camera battery will only last so long, though. If you’re hoping to capture an event longer than three hours, you’ll probably have to rig up an external power supply. This power supply can be as simple as a motorcycle battery hooked up to a voltage regulator, or it can be a sophisticated, computer-controlled lithium polymer setup with photovoltaic (solar) cells. Then there’s the matter of finding a memory card of sufficient size, and a mounting solution with sufficient stability.

Simple is better. If you’ve got drone journalism equipment lying around as I do, you likely already have all the requisite components to make a great time-lapse video. The following is a breakdown of my own experiment in time-lapse photography, which you can replicate or modify to suit your own needs.