Thursday, February 27, 2014

A call for journalists and makers to join hands around IOT and evidence-based journalism

Writing for Al Jazeera English, D. Parvaz reported on a recent conference for atomic experts organized by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), where it was remarkably difficult to get answers from atomic experts.

The conference, titled “International Experts’ Meeting on Radiation Protection after the Fukushima Daiichi Accident – Promoting confidence and understanding,” was generally closed to the media. Journalists received presentations on USB drives, but were not given any opportunities for Q&A. The media handlers were pleasant, but not very helpful, Parvaz noted.

Great! I requested an interview with the IAEA Scientific Secretariat, Tony Colgan (no can do). Or a statement on why the conference was closed to the media (not so much). How about an IAEA expert on the effects of radiation on sea life? (Nope).

For a conference designed to “promote confidence and understanding” with the public, there was very little engagement with the public. Despite this, Parvaz did find one group of presenters who were very helpful and answered her questions.

That group was Safecast, an international not-for-profit that crowd-sources radiation detection with open-source sensors. Safecast held one of their regular hackerspaces to help citizens use and deploy Geiger counters before the conference, but also were invited to speak to IAEA experts.

Their reception at the conference turned out better than expected, Parvaz wrote.

"I was expecting that we'd be blown off," said [Safecast team member Azby] Brown, but he and [Joe] Moross describe the moment when a room of roughly 200 started tilting to their side, when experts who had little respect for crowdsourcing suddenly realising that in the event of a disaster, trained, data-gathering volunteers were to be appreciated, not dismissed.

Time and time again, we hear about large-scale, man-made disasters that pollute the environment and threaten the health and livelihoods of citizens. In 2010, it was Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2011, it was the oil barge Rena off the coast of New Zealand. In 2012, it was TEPCO’s Fukushima disaster in Japan, and BP’s oil spill in Alabama. In 2013, it was the ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Arkansas. And so far this year in the United States, we’ve faced the Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina, and the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia.

Of course, these are just the major incidents we learn about through national news. Central Illinois had its own man-made environmental disaster last year, when a stockpile of 200,000 used tires went up in flames in the small town of Hoopeston. At least 2,000 people in 500 homes were evacuated (see “A massive, toxic tire fire, and how citizen sensor journalism could have informed a community in crisis”).

A citizen's photo of the tire fire in Hoopeston, Illinois.

Affected citizens almost never have timely access to environmental data collected by authorities. As was the case with Hoopeston, it took 117 days, several FOIA requests, and a letter to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor to obtain environmental data (see: “IEPA is silent on request for data, emails surrounding large tire fire”).

Even if environmental data is available, citizens may not have the chance to independently verify what little data may be in circulation. For example, Japan’s government famously downplayed the severity of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And the public still has doubts about the safety of drinking water in West Virginia, following last month’s chemical spill.

A government might not even collect data at all, especially if it depends on that data from industries who self-report their environmental impact. An AP report on the West Virginia chemical spill noted that 13% of coal plants are noncompliant with the Clean Water Act, and that “three-quarters of the 1,727 coal mines listed haven't been inspected in the past five years to see if they are obeying water pollution laws.”

With the right sensors, journalists and citizens not only could obtain data where governments fail to do so, but also could provide a means to independently verify government claims. Whether the sensor is on the ground, in the water, or on a drone, makes no difference (see: “Journalists Could've Used Drones in Fukushima”).

Evidence-based journalism

This process could be called many things. You could call it environmental journalism, data journalism, sensor journalism, computer-assisted reporting, precision reporting, and/or drone journalism. Personally, I prefer “evidence based journalism,” a term coined by boss, a co-principal investigator of the National Science Foundation grant where I work.

Evidence-based journalism doesn’t rely on hearsay or calls to authority. Evidence-based journalism relies on quantifiable, verifiable, demonstrative data. In the age of ubiquitous data, and cheap, always-on, internet-connected sensors (i.e. Internet of Things, or IOT), journalists need to raise the bar for information-gathering, and start thinking and behaving like scientists (see “You’re not a newspaper, you’re an intelligence agency for the people”).

Journalists can’t do large-scale, evidence-based journalism all on their own. Deploying sensors en masse requires community outreach and cooperation, and so hackerspaces and makerspaces are instrumental in creating accessible sensor and IOT technology, educating the public on the use of sensors, and integrating STEM knowledge to further empower citizens to develop their own environmental sensing devices (see “Making mental munition: from bits to atoms to understanding”). In this respect, this enterprise could just as easily be called community informatics, crowd-sourcing, or hacktivism.

For example, my airborne particulate sensing initiative, the Arduino-based DustDuino, couldn’t be possible without help from the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab, and the Makerspace Urbana. Both provided tools and expertise to turn my idea into a prototype, as well as helpful collaborators who shared their application and contributed advice.

Makerspace Urbana on a typical Wednesday night. This makerspace frequently gives public workshops on topics like robotics, Arduino, programming, 3D Printing, and textiles.

I’ll be talking more about the DustDuino initiative at the O’Reilly Solid Conference (or Solidcon) on May 21. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a short video outlining the project.

And before Solidcon, in March, I’ll be training journalists at an Internews Earth Journalism News conference in Berkely, California on how to set up, service, and analyze data from DustDuino particulate sensors. Internews journalists will then deploy sensors in Brazil, Mongolia, and elsewhere, and integrate the data into environmental journalism investigations. I’ll also be making an appearance at the “Groundtruth and Airwaves: Sensor Networks and Emerging Technology for Environmental Journalism” symposium at UC Berkely.

Finally, the lessons I’m learning through the DustDuino development process are being incorporated into a chapter of an upcoming text on sensor journalism from Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

But enough about the DustDuino; it’s the community that helped make the DustDuino that’s important. Back at the very top of this post, there’s an image that was taken at a recent workshop hosted by the Makerspace Urbana, in which I’m soldering a circuit board (right) along with another participant (left). It’s at these type of gatherings where relationships form that could generate the next Apple, HP, Nest. Or the next great innovation in evidence-based journalism.

In the photo, we’re both soldering circuit boards from a company called Cornfield Electronics. That company was started by Mitch Altman, a 1984 (master's) graduate of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, who went on to co-found the influential San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge. Altman developed a gadget called the TV-B-Gone, which turns off pretty much any brand of television with the touch of a button.

With the TV-B-Gone, Altman found a hit. He sold more than 500,000 units, which enabled him to travel across the country to host workshops and deliver an important message: “It is worth choosing well what you do with your time because it’s really one of the few things we have control over in our life.” Earlier this month, he returned to his alma mater to host several such workshops.

Altman’s workshop proved to be as important for learning a new skill (soldering), as it did for imparting a life lesson (do what you love). Perhaps there’s a lesson there for journalists as well, in partnering with communities who also love to do interesting things and empower others around them.