News Hack Arizona teaches sensor journalism

By Yoohyun Jung

Arizona journalists had a chance to get their hands on remote sensing technology and learn about how it can be used to tell important stories about their communities. 

More than 80 professional and student journalists, including freelancers and journalism teachers, gathered at the second annual News Hack Arizona event, a data and technology literacy conference for journalists, at the University of Arizona in Tucson on Feb. 18 and 19.

The winning team’s project used light and motion sensors — overlaid with crime data — to determine the safest places to run or walk around the UA campus. The team included UA School of Journalism student Lauren Renteria, Johanna Eubank of the Arizona Daily Star, Northern Arizona University student Peter Kersting and Dan Kempton of The Associated Press.

On the first day, participants learned everything from assembling the hardware, loading the software to using their sensor kits to gather data. They also learned how to turn that data into story ideas that address issues around their communities.

The participants then took the skills they learned to develop specific sensor journalism project pitches on the next day. 

“Sensor journalism is more important now than ever,” said Lily Bui, a scholar who taught at News Hack. “In an increasingly data-driven world, it’s important for more people to understand how to use data to make sense of the world around us.”

Bui, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works with remote sensing data as part of her urban planning studies. She is also a former radio producer for Public Radio Exchange, where she worked on science storytelling.

News Hack 2017 also included breakout sessions of sensor journalism story development, working with spreadsheets, and a technology showcase on drone and virtual reality by UA Professor Michael McKisson and graduate student Jenny Hijazi.

Tracy Greer, managing editor at KJZZ Phoenix who has attended News Hack two years in a row, said she would take what she learned at News Hack back to her newsroom and help her reporters learn how to use the technology.

“Part of my role is knowing what our resources are,” she said. Now, sensors are one of the resources she has in her pocket.

Her group pitched a project on using a temperature sensor to figure out where the coldest areas in the UA library are. The members also wanted to use a motion sensor to determine the most popular study spots within the library.

The data collected through the sensors would be used to illustrate a larger point on whether or not university resource is being wasted in excessively cooling facilities, Greer’s group said in their presentation. 

UA student Jordan Glenn’s group’s pitch was to use temperature sensors to detect temperature in low-income neighborhoods and compare that to sensor data from more affluent neighborhoods. The data would help them test their hypothesis: Are lower income neighborhoods hotter because of lack of vegetation? How does that relate to the number and size of public spaces?

With support from the Arizona Newspapers Association, Arizona Press Club, UA School of Journalism, UA soil, water and environmental sciences department, and UA Journalism alum Al Litzow, each organization that completed project pitches on the second day took home a sensor journalism kit.

The kit includes a Raspberry Pi computer, a temperature and humidity sensor, a motion sensor, a circuit board, cables and accessories.

More than a dozen news organizations were represented the event, including KJZZ Phoenix, Pinal Central, Navajo Times, the Associated Press, Cochise County Record, Arizona Daily Star and Arizona Republic. Journalism students from Arizona State, Northern Arizona, University of Arizona and Pima Community College also attended.

Yoohyun Jung is a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star and a 2015 UA School of Journalism graduate.

Published Date: 

02/21/2017 - 1:54pm