Sensors and Journalism

Sensor Journalism Through Open and Closed-source Initiatives

By Matthew Schroyer Introduction Traditionally, journalists have relied on government agencies or selfreporting industries to obtain data for investigations. A new wave of rapidprototyping tools—including low-cost sensors, and easily programmable microcontrollers and microcomputers—has lowered barriers for creating data-collecting devices, potentially allowing journalists to investigate independently of those traditional institutions. Whether a particular sensor journalism initiative will succeed largely depends on how sensing devices are planned, designed, produced, and deployed in the field. Key to many of those decisions is how “closed” or “open” a sensor journalism initiative will be to collaborators and end users. While this section may be most applicable to journalists who are considering building their own sensing equipment, it is important to note that not all sensor-based reporting will require making your own tools. Stability, Rigidity in Closed-source Sensing Devices Although the share of open-source tools in newsrooms is increasing; from word processors and page design applications; to cameras; smartphones; and tablets the bulk of digital tools that journalists use on a daily basis are

closed-source.1model is largely credited to IP-holders’ defined ownership, which can be wielded to dictate the future of the project or company.2revenue stream, which can be used to attract investors or secure talent who also wish to enjoy a stake in the project. End users also enjoy a distinct line of accountability from the developer, whom they can rely upon for service, patches, and upgrades. Closed-source devices may provide several important advantages for those looking to adopt, not develop, sensing tools. Namely, agencies might license a standardized, laboratory-tested sensing device that is managed through a polished, dedicated computer or mobile app. While most commercially available sensors, such as Geiger counters, air quality monitors, and pH meters, are closed-source and lack internet connectivity, the landscape is poised for change as more connected “Internet of things” (IoT) products come to market. The Nest Protect, for example, transmits carbon monoxide and smoke readings to a central server, which are accessible through a mobile app.3and the Nike FuelBand, sense motion, heartbeat, and GPS location, and can sync this data with smartphones or computers. Still, journalists may find closed-source sensing tools prohibitive in a number of ways. First and foremost, by its very nature, closed-source technology cannot legally or physically be modified to fit specific applications. Though there may be no stopping a curious individual from probing proprietary hardware, as is the case with “circuit bending” or “hardware hacking,”4proprietary hardware is protected against unauthorized duplication. Additionally, data obtained from closed-source devices might be stored in a proprietary file type, which may require expensive software to access, process, read, or export it, making the data of little use to third parties and jeopardizing a news agency’s ability to be algorithmically accountable.5personal communication) Furthermore, existing commercial technology may not be optimized for journalistic purposes. The Nest Protect, for example, is designed only for remote home monitoring, and fitness trackers may only be useful within the scope of a dedicated fitness-tracking application. For journalists seeking to make their own customized sensing solutions, going “closed” presents challenges with regard to development and servicing. Advances in rapid prototyping have reduced hardware development costs,6commercial software and hardware markets often demand high upfront costs to develop a product. Additionally, end users will likely expect you to provide troubleshooting services, product updates, and server space for cloud data storage. Developers also run the risk of becoming involved in patent lawsuits, which have become more expensive to litigate over time.7through the market, end users may face prohibitive license fees that could ultimately limit the size of the product’s potential user base. For journalism-friendly technology to exist in the commercial market, there must be demand; as of yet, it is uncertain whether media companies will find a market to support in-house development of commercial sensing technology.

Open-source Tools for Sensor Journalism Open-source dates back to (at least) the 1950s and 1960s, when user groups began to distribute and exchange software source code.8journalists might have familiarity with open-source software like the Open Office Suite, geographic information system (GIS) tools such as QGIS,9libraries. However, it’s much less common for them to be using open-source sensing devices in the newsroom. That’s not to say that a number of open-source sensing devices don’t exist that can be purchased as a kit, and assembled and configured with the help of digitally distributed instructions. A few can even be purchased as finished products that can be deployed with minimal setup. The Air Quality Egg (, for example, is a commercially available, open-source device, which registers carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide readings and sends this data to a cloud storage and graphing service. The Smart Citizen Kit by Acrobotic Industries ( smart-citizen) is another device on the market that measures air pollution, in addition to light and sound levels. Safecast (, a volunteer radiation-monitoring organization founded after the 2011 Fukushima Diiachi nuclear disaster, hosts crowdsourced, geotagged radiation readings and provides information about how to build and code Arduino-based Geiger counters. The DustDuino (, which is being tested as a sensor journalism platform, produces EPA and EU-compatible readings for coarse and fine particulate matter. Each of these low-cost sensors used in open-source projects has been criticized for its inadequate sensitivity levels, low resolution, and lack of precision and accuracy,10is improving. Some sensors coming to market (such as optical particulate sensors) have been compared favorably to more expensive ones.11open-source sensor initiatives and create new devices, the community of end users will take on additional dimensions of importance when compared to its role in closed initiatives. The success of closed-source sensor projects is limited by product cost and utility to end users, whereas the potential of open-source projects is defined by the community that forms around it. Buy-in to this community is limited by the prerequisite hardware and software development skills necessary to build and contribute to the project, the time and energy necessary to learn the prerequisite skills, and the kinds of returns the end user can expect.12the role of refining, releasing, and servicing the software or device—sometimes in novel ways—there is no defined end-of-life baked into the design of the software or device. While product development or deployment can be supported by multiple, simultaneous funding models, such as ancillary services, consultancy, freemium, or crowdfunding a physical product,13will always dictate the future of the device. Thus, the critical question for the project becomes: Are there enough sensor journalists, or other interested parties (i.e., citizens, hacktivists, and researchers),willing to shoulder the burden of development (in terms of time and material resources) to keep the barrier to entry low enough so that others may buy-in? A defining feature of open- and closed-source sensor journalism initiatives is a level of public education and community engagement. In sensing projects such as Safecast, the Air Quality Egg, WNYC’s “Cicada Tracker,” and the DustDuino, education about the environment and sensing technology was necessary to achieve community buy-in and recruit developers.14Indeed, research has shown that those who work on open projects receive some kind of learning benefit in the process.15A skilled, strong community of developer-users not only benefits the efficacy of the end product, but also provides transparency and lends the project algorithmic accountability. Where sensors may be used in critical journalism investigations, the public will scrutinize the accuracy and precision of sensing devices, making accountability necessary. Of course, open-source initiatives aren’t without drawbacks. Perhaps the biggest threat to open-source projects is the unpredictable nature of development communities.16risk with investing in development and taking any product to commercial market, and crowdfunding can be unpredictable and difficult to master.17intellectual property rights limits access to more direct, reliable revenue streams, and opens the door for imitators to push out copies at marginal cost.18destiny away to the user community also means granting others the power to influence the final product, which could also be an advantage if the community generates a novel and useful product.

Ultimately, no sensor journalism initiative has to be entirely open- or closed-source. The creators of the Arduino, for example, have published schematics and code, but retain the Arduino trademark. Likewise, where precision is paramount, closed-sourced sensing devices could be integrated into a project where the resulting data is open-source. However, collaborators may find they have no choice but to keep projects open. In his article, “How Open is Open Enough?” Joel West identifies four key motivations that drive developers to open-source their projects:19minimum efficient scale necessary to support proprietary research and development; 2) There is not enough market power to resist buyer demands for open standards; 3) “ Tipping” of the standards contest is in favor of the open standard, making it infeasible to establish (or maintain) a proprietary standard; 4) A decision is made to accept commoditization of the particular architectural layer and shift competitive advantage to another architectural layer. More important than prescribing broad rules for what kind of projects should be open and which should be closed is recommending that an organization create a strategy to address patentable technologies where they may arise, while working to create a vibrant community around environmental sensing. Journalists may find that their own values, in terms of facilitating free flow of information and civic participation, align better with the open-source ethos.