March 1, 2016

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has thrown water quality issues into the spotlight.

But Flint isn’t the only place in the U.S. struggling with water quality. Two years ago, the Elk River in West Virginia made national headlines when the coal scrubbing chemical called MCHM spilled into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 West Virginia residents without drinkable water.

That crisis — as well as other problems with contaminated water in the state — led West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media to launch a sensor journalism project called Stream Lab.

The project was spearheaded by two public radio journalists: Dave Mistich, from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and John Keefe of WNYC. The two journalists were named Innovators in Residence at WVU and worked with students at the university to launch a community reporting project around the water quality in the Monongahela River.

To measure the water in the river, they deployed six sensors housed in Gatorade bottles. The sensors, originally developed by Public Lab and the MIT Media Lab, cost about $80 each and collected data six times an hour on the conductivity and temperature of the water. (The project is entirely open-source, which means other newsrooms can replicate the project with their own audiences.)

As John put it, “I think that when people are collecting data in their own backyard it redefines “newsgathering.” Any project where you can learn about your immediate surroundings AND contribute to a larger understanding is incredibly compelling.”

This is journalism at its finest — it’s engaging, timely, community-focused, and impactful. Journalists and newsrooms are key to doing this project well: We can look at the data, confirm something is amiss or not, offer possible explanations for what’s happening and test the water with professional instruments, which leads to more and better stories.

Also key, though, is the involvement of a participating community. This project works because people participate; it’s collecting information and then using that information to create better journalism.

I asked Keefe, the senior editor for data news at WNYC, and Mistich, the digital editor and coordinator for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, to talk more about their work on Stream Lab and how other newsrooms could build on their work. I also spoke with WVU associate professor Dana Coester, who directed the Innovator-in-Residence program.

Dave and John, you worked together and with faculty and students at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media on a water quality reporting project using sensor technology. Why did you decide to focus on water quality?

Keefe: To be brutally honest, we did it did it backwards: We started with the sensors and looked for a way to use them. That’s not a smart way to do journalism with sensors — though it is an excellent way to learn about what’s possible in a journalism class!

I first heard about a DIY water sensor that fits inside a regular water bottle during a Personal Democracy Forum session. With a water bottle, a tiny hobby computer and some batteries, the idea was that you could measure and log water conductivity levels for tens of dollars instead of hundreds of dollars (or even thousands). Water conductivity is a good proxy for levels of dissolved solids in water.

I loved this idea. Later, when Maryanne Reed invited me to help teach a sensor journalism class at West Virginia University, I told her I’d be game, but only if we could use that DIY water sensor I saw. It seemed like such a great match for a project in West Virginia. Only catch was that I didn’t know if those sensors even existed.

Turns out they didn’t, really. I reached out to the man leading the project, Don Blair at Public Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab, and he said he was just about to assemble some and needed some field testers. I said “perfect,” and also that I wanted to help build them — which I did!

I told Maryanne we were a go, and figured we’d find the story later (backwards!) or at least just run the class as a prototype to see if they work.

Mistich: John had been working with other types of sensors and had become aware of the development of the Riffle [which stands for Remote, Independent and Friendly Field Logger Electronics].

I had been covering water issues in West Virginia following the spill of a coal-scrubbing chemical that had leaked into Elk River and tainted the water supply of Charleston (and the surrounding nine counties) in January of that year. Some 300,000 West Virginians were left without water for days. So, water quality was something I had some experience with in my reporting. Data had been (and still is) a focus for both of us and John, of course, was an emerging expert in sensor journalism.

If I’m not mistaken, the discussions were pretty vague at that point — aside from John excitedly talking about the development of the Riffle sensors and what was known about them at the time. But by the end of that year, Maryanne and Dana Coester had begun to recruit us for the Innovator in Residence program. I was flattered, to say the least, but I think the honor speaks volumes to what my colleagues and I have been trying to do at West Virginia Public Broadcasting in trying to not be stuck in the status quo.

What did students enrolled in the Stream Lab class do? And how did they build their sensors? Can anyone build one? How much do they cost?

Keefe: We actually divided the class [we worked with] into three teams: Water (seek out and work with water experts), story (research and make the story of the water body we monitored) and document (log and post everything about the project process). There was supposed to be a sensor team, which would build and code the sensors … but none of the students really wanted to do that. They’re journalism majors, for the most part, not engineers. So I became the sensor team. That said, the water team did end up designing and assembling the Gatorade containers, figured out how to anchor them to the riverbed and actually deployed and retrieved them.

What did the sensors show?

Keefe: Basically, they showed that one can, indeed, measure conductivity with DIY sensors. And you can log and text that data. We saw similar fluctuations in conductivity across six different sensors — demonstrating that they were seeing similar changes in dissolved solids in the water. Exactly what those solids were and why they were there weren’t determined.

Mistich: They also take a timestamp. Half of the sensors we deployed had the ability to “text” data in real time with what’s essentially a cell phone transmitter. With that capability, we could visualize data as it was collected, which is really powerful from not only a journalist’s point of view but also from that of someone in the audience that could watch it as it was coming in.

If another newsroom or group wanted to replicate this experiment, what would you tell them?

Keefe: Start with some place where there’s already controversy or an issue or a concern. See if DIY monitoring might add to the discussion. Work closely with water experts who can (and are willing to) build on what you find.

Also despite the allure of real-time data … texting out the information takes precious battery power. The versions that simply logged the data lasted much longer!

Mistich: One thing I would suggest in doing any sort of experimental journalism is for people to keep in mind that it’s just that: an experiment. I don’t think we came into it thinking we would expose some major incidence of pollution, given the limited capability of what we were able to measure. Knowing your limitations and being transparent about them is key.

Another thing that really impressed me about John was his insistence on the project being open-source from day one. We knew we were breaking ground in some ways simply because the technology was so new. However, we all believe it’s important to offer the design up to anyone else to make improvements and push the envelope even further. I’d tell anyone doing something like this to put their process and findings out there so others can tweak it to their own needs.

Tell me a little more about the Innovators in Residence program that brought the two of you together.

Coester: The Innovators in Residence program (which is funded by the Knight Foundation) is in part designed to…distribute the risks and costs of innovation among a wider network of innovators, and then disseminate as widely as possible — students, faculty in our and other programs and the industry at large. And partnering a major market innovator-in-residence (who may have more resources) with a local or regional smaller market innovator-in-residence as a team, helps to create an informal bridge between diverse media teams (or home-grown change agents within an organization) that can help accelerate innovation, adoption of new skills, or even just helping support collaborative innovation culture.

Mistich: The Innovators in Residence program is extremely impressive. It was a great opportunity to learn about sensors but still apply my experience in reporting on water issues and make use of data skills that I’ve been honing over the past few years. At times, I felt like I was juggling a lot between day to day responsibilities around my own newsroom and making my way from Charleston to Morgantown to help with the StreamLab project at WVU. But, I think all journalists — and many public media professionals — have to wear a lot of different hats, so it was familiar to me in a lot of ways.

Of course, there was the teaching aspect, but I saw that as more of an opportunity to mentor students. When I was in journalism school at Marshall University a decade ago, Twitter was just emerging. There were courses on Web journalism, but the whole field was just starting to be understood and it looks virtually unrecognizable from when it did back then. For me, it was a great opportunity to give some guidance on what I’ve learned in a real world setting and to explain to students how quickly and often evolution in news takes place.

John and I will also be putting on a workshop for students and other professional journalists in April to discuss sensors and data collection/visualization. So, really, it’s not just the students in the experimental journalism course that get to benefit, but a wider community gets that opportunity as well.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I learned as much as the students did throughout this process. That’s invaluable to me — to be able to innovate while teaching and learning simultaneously.

I read a recent report in Pew that suggested that people are much more likely to share local news rather than become newsgatherers themselves. How does sensor journalism and your work help bridge that gap?

Keefe: I think that when people are collecting data in their own backyard it redefines “newsgathering.” Any project where you can learn about your immediate surroundings and contribute to a larger understanding is incredibly compelling.

Coester: The maker movement in general helps fuel a DIY sensibility that enables this kind of low-cost, low- threshold engagement, and while it probably takes a particular kind of nerd to get hands on with sensors, I suspect the growing prevalence of IoT sensing objects in our world will accelerate that engagement. The water crisis locally, but certainly the national attention on water, gives a pretty profound urgency to community members wanting to understand what’s in their water. While these sensors aren’t designed to do all of that — they are certainly a mechanism for understanding the science of water monitoring, and making more direct contact with that process a possibility. Anything that increases community members’ sense of agency in their environment — and over technology — is a powerful change agent in and of itself. And that is part of what the maker movement is about moving people from being consumers, of knowledge, of products, of data to creators, and hands-on practitioners. And once you have that sense of agency and skill — there’s a lot you can do in your world.

Mistich: Since working on this project with John and the faculty at WVU, I’ve become rather interested in this myself. Being in public media at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’re always looking for (at least) two key things from our audience: engagement and membership. I’m in the process of developing a project that hopes to intersect sensor journalism with community engagement — as well as find a way to bring in revenue for the station. In my mind, it would be something where members of our audience would “sponsor a sensor.”

This would be an opportunity for them to become a member, help West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s newsroom collect data and also engage with the project. From the very start they would have literally “bought in” to that project. My thinking is that they will feel empowered to take care in the data collection process and also engage with the project by sharing via word of mouth and online. This wouldn’t necessarily have to focus on water quality. It could be air quality around fracking sites or a whole host of other possibilities. But with Flint exploding on the national spotlight and other issues in the minds of our audience, it’s difficult not to believe there’s room for more on the subject of water quality.

Are there plans to expand the program? Where do you hope to go next? What would you do with more funding?

Coester: I’d like to be able to continue to iterate on the sensors themselves — like John Keefe’s texting hack. We were looking at some potential beacon use, which could enable some different ways of collecting data. I’d love to see a very large deployment of the sensors, state or region-wide, with live-streaming data over a period of time. I’d also like to expand what we’ve learned in this work into some of the emerging air quality sensors.

Mistich: Right now we are working on a digitally-immersive recap of the process of deploying the sensors and showing what we learned. There are also a lot of interesting background stories about water quality in West Virginia that provide a great deal of context as to why this experiment is important here — from acid mine drainage, to the Elk River spill in 2014 and all sorts of other issues. In Morgantown and the surrounding area, there’s a lot of natural gas development and drilling happening, so even right along the m River there’s a story. Packaging all of this up and putting it out will be a great payoff.

With more funding, I think it would really just become more and more sophisticated. From the nuts and bolts of the design of the project to how you present the data collected. With more money, you could ensure the integrity of the sensors as they’re being deployed and, once you’re finished collecting data, there’d be an opportunity to hire a knock-out developer to help show off what you had discovered.

I see this work as the epitome of what public media should be. But it’s not the only sensor journalism project out there. What other projects have caught your eyes recently, and where do you look to for inspiration?

Keefe: Amy Schmitz Weiss at San Diego State University did some great work with journalism students who did air monitoring.

Travis Hartman did some great work in Columbia, Missouri around sound pollution.

They, Matt Waite and I did a presentation about our work last year for NICAR.

Coester: Some of the dataviz work coming out of the methane crisis in Southern California has been fascinating and a source of inspiration.

Mistich: John of course did a great project at WNYC on cicadas a while back. To me, that’s still really inspiring. There’ve also been projects at Kent State and Florida State using sensors for water quality projects. Others are tackling issues around air quality. I think it’s safe to say we’ll see a lot of experiments and investigations using sensors in the future of journalism and I hope this isn’t the last of which I’ll be a part.

This was also a really nice way for two public radio stations to collaborate together. What did you learn by working together and what would you tell other stations who wanted to pursue a collaborative project together?

Keefe: This actually wasn’t a collaboration; I worked on this independently on my own time.

Mistich: At West Virginia Public Broadcasting, like many smaller to mid-sized stations, we still have limited resources in the digital sphere. My team here is only three people, with me being the only person (mostly) dedicated to the newsroom. That said, we’ve tried to collaborate with other stations when it’s something that works for us and is a good use of time and resources. From social media projects to more in-depth reporting, or simply asking for help with something we may not be capable of quite yet — there’s a lot of opportunity out there. I’ve found that public media journalists are quick to lend a hand or some thoughts to whatever ideas you might cook up.

With us being a statewide public broadcasting network, it certainly cuts down on competition, but it also makes collaborating locally with another public media outlet in West Virginia impossible. We’ve reached out to newspapers and other outlets when it makes sense to collaborate.

I think the thing I’ve learned the most in collaborating with other stations or newsrooms is to be honest and upfront about resources and the division of labor from the very outset. Lay out expectations but also don’t be afraid to deviate a bit when necessary. Like anything collaborative or experimental, the finished product is rarely exactly how it was imagined from the get-go.

Coester: I would encourage them to not go it alone — part of the magic of open source is connecting with other folks experimenting in this, which includes John and David, and Don Blair [from Public Lab], and the other growing network that has emerged from this experiment. Sharing expertise, and contributing new uses and troubleshooting back to the open source project so many more can engage is a great way to grow this sort of innovation share economy in general.

Is there anything else that you’re working on, either in collaboration or separately, that you’d like to talk about?

Mistich: Coincidentally (or maybe not at all), West Virginia Public Broadcasting is teaming up with the Allegheny Front for a series on water issues in the Ohio River Watershed. We’ve received a grant from the Benedum Foundation to explore these issues through reporting on the radio and also through digital/multimedia projects. We had our first meeting about it at the beginning of February and I’m pretty excited to see where this project takes us.

Of course, it’s also an election year and we’ve been trying to increase our ability to map/visualize election results. Last time around, I dropped KML files into a Google Fusion Table and spend the whole night updating the map (changing districts from red to blue) and plugging the results from AP by hand. It did incredibly well as far as pageviews and engaged time, but it was brutal as far as workflow. My goal this year is to code out something and “set it and forget it” so I can focus on updating posts and helping reporters out in the field on the nights of the primary and general elections.

If you do find that the water quality is not good — or someone with one of these sensors discovers water quality issues — what do you do next?

Keefe: Talk to experts. No question. Get professional guidance and help from someone — or several people — to a) confirm something is actually amiss b) offer possible explanations for what’s happening and c) test the water with professional instruments and/or laboratories.

Coester: I think we need larger scale deployment for longer durations, but this is do-able. And I think we can coordinate this with community members and agencies to achieve a meaningful, in-depth reporting experience.

Mistich: I think the first thing a journalist or any other person should/would do is to alert someone with more sophisticated sensors than the Riffle. I like to call the technology we used an “early warning detection system.” I think that’s a fair way of describing what we were using and what they were capable of measuring. Of course, at that point, we (and likely anyone else) would start asking questions of local and state authorities, environmental agencies and also researching potential contaminates.

The thing about good journalism is that answers lead to more questions and further investigation, so there’s really no shame in not being able to get everything you need from the outset.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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