When One Path Ends, Another Begins

group photo

We made it!

The students made their final project presentations on Monday and the moment was bittersweet for me. I was happy to see how far we have come as a class and sad to see our time together was coming to an end. And there is so much work yet to be done in answering the question about air quality in San Diego!

It was great to watch each presentation today and find out what the students learned, what challenges they faced and what they felt were the most interesting aspects of the course.

Overall, many of the students addressed similar points in their presentations today that I thought I would sum up here:

camelle sison

Camelle Sison presenting her final project.

*The power and pitfalls with sensor technology: Sensors can be empowering and provide a new way of understanding the world around us. Yet, open-source sensor technology is still in an early stage and there is much to be done in terms of data consistency, calibration and quality of the information that can be obtained with this technology.

*Sensors and the news gathering process: Sensors can provide new questions about the environment around us and help us ask why is it that way? Why does the data show that? As we went along this journey, we would get one sensor observation and have more questions about where to go next and what to do.

*Using data to tell unique stories about a community: This project enabled the students to reference several different datasets including our own sensor data and explore the many facets of data-driven journalism. They learned several valuable data journalism skills from Joe Yerardi this semester (e.g. averages, ranks, medians, etc.) that will help them to think differently about how they cover a community in the future.

Jack Haworth

Jack Haworth presenting his final project.

*Data is only as strong as the human element to the story: Data can only be one part of a story. You need a person behind each data point. What does poor air quality mean to the elderly man, young child and young professional in a community? How does the air that they breathe day in and day out impact how they view their environment around them? The students learned through extensive interviews in different communities what people thought about air pollution and air quality in San Diego.

*Visuals such as maps can make a difference in showing versus telling in a story: Several of the students mentioned in their presentations how much they enjoyed learning ARC GIS from Kevin Robinson this semester on how to create a simple map and embed layers in a map to show information geographically. Second, the students mentioned how much photos and videos helped them to show versus tell in their stories about the location of places, businesses, and people and how this combination communicated a lot about air quality in a certain area of the city.

david kimbrough and kevin robinson

Geological Sciences Department Director David Kimbrough and Geology Lecturer Kevin Robinson speaking to the class.

*The enriching world of science: The students mentioned they learned a lot about scientific concepts tied to air quality and air pollution; the weather and climate; and the role humans, businesses and nature play in air quality. Several of the students mentioned how they were given many foreign concepts over the semester but came away with new knowledge and an appreciation for science.

It was rewarding to hear how the students felt they were pushed outside their comfort zones throughout the course, they were thrown into a subject without any prior knowledge and came away learning so much, how they learned to adapt and pivot as their stories changed and our sensor technology ebbed and flowed, and how important they felt their work was in informing the community about air quality in San Diego.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will be publishing the students’ stories and their sensor observations and data. It has been one heck of a ride and I am glad we have taken this journey.

I am already getting ideas about how we can continue to explore air quality in San Diego and take our sensor journalism to another level. Stay tuned!

And lastly, I would like to give a thank you to some special people that helped us to make this class and project possible:

Kevin Robinson, Co-Teacher and Geologist guru; David Kimbrough, Director of the Department of Geological Sciences; Lorie Hearn, Executive Director and Editor of inewsource and Collaborator on this project; Joe Yerardi, Data Journalist at inewsource and guide on our data journey; Steve Birch, Sensor Consultant and guide on our sensor journey; Cyrus Saatsaz, Research Assistant and social media guru; Dr. Jenny Quintana, Professor in the Graduate School of Public Health; Dr. Bey-Ling Sha, Interim Director of the School of Journalism and Media Studies; Joyce Gattas, Dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts; Stanley Malloy, Dean of the College of Sciences; and Cathie Atkins, Associate Dean of the College of Sciences.

And a very special thanks to our funders for this project: Online News Association with support from Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Rita Allen Foundation.




social media frau hoelle

Website Analytics, Social Media Strategy and More

Lily Bui

Lily Bui presenting to the class on sensor journalism.

With only a few weeks left in the semester, we are coming to the final stages of our project.

This week we had the opportunity to have Lily Bui, MIT researcher, present to us virtually about sensor journalism.

She gave a great presentation on how we can understand this developing area of journalism along with its quirks and possibilities. You can view her complete presentation here:


We also covered website strategy and analytics this week. Specifically I discussed this week about SEO strategy, creating benchmarks for your website, and how to understand website analytics. The students broke out into groups and identified keywords and website stats they would like to see implemented in our What’s in the Air section on the inewsource site.

In addition, we also covered social media strategy and analytics. Nowadays, a reporter can no longer expect that the public will just automatically view and read their stories just because they are published.

A reporter and news organization needs to have a clear plan of how they will launch and announce their news story or project, how to tell if the story or project is connecting and resonating with the public, and how to bring the public into that process and engage with them.

This week the students also continued to work on the final touches of their news stories and completed their sensor data observations in the neighborhoods they have been covering for the semester. We are excited for the next step in mapping the data and also publishing the stories on the inewsource website soon!


Story Production Underway, Data Management Plan Created

We are entering the last few weeks of the semester and we are in the final stretch!

The students are working hard on wrapping up their stories for inewsource. The other week our first video explainer went live on inewsource. In the video, Nancy and Camelle talk about the science of what is in our air – describing gases and particulate matter and its effects on one’s health. You can check out the video for  yourself here: https://vimeo.com/124960815

We have another video explainer that addresses the different neighborhoods the students are writing about –  so stay tuned for when that will be posted on inewsource!

susan white

Susan White and her visit to class.

Guest Speaker Visits

This week we had two great guest speakers. First, we had Susan White. She is an experienced journalist who was a part of two Pulitzer-prize winning teams and shared with the students her experiences in journalism and gave tips to the students on their air quality stories.

carolyn  baber

Carolyn Baber presenting to the students on data management strategies.

Second, we had Carolyn Baber, assessment and instructional services coordinator from the SDSU Library, talk with us about a data management plan. Data management plans are not just for researchers but also apply to journalists. During her talk, she asked us important questions – How will the data be collected? What we will do with our sensor data? How will it be housed and preserved for the long-term? Who will own the data and what can be done with it after this project is over? How will we share our data? What are the ethical and legal implications of our data?

Data management

Data management plan presented by Carolyn Baber.

She gave us a lot to think about as it relates to the sensor data we have been collecting this spring in class. On Wednesday, we gathered together and went through a checklist of questions Carolyn gave us and created our own Data Management Plan that allows us to know how we will manage, administer and maintain our data after this project is over.

Overall, journalists and news organizations should think about a data management plan for all their data-driven stories. For more information about data management plans, check out this helpful link:


Production underway

Well, after a short spring break we are back to classes! The students have been busily working these past few weeks  on their latest drafts of their stories and are in the midst of wrapping up interviews. I am looking forward to inewsource publishing the students’ work  very soon!

students filming

In addition, the students have worked hard to put together some video explainers about air quality in San Diego.

With the use of mobile technology nowadays – some great iPads and our green room space, the students were able to produce some solid video explainers for the site. We hope that these video explainers will help the public to learn more about the project and the nuances of air quality in San Diego.

We look forward to inewsource publishing the video explainers soon.

Stay tuned! More exciting news to come!


Getting Into the Data

This week we focused on data.

What is data journalism and what does it have to do with sensor journalism?

Joe Data

Joe Yerardi showing the students basic Excel functions.

Well, data journalism can be defined as the act of using data (in any form it may be in – from numbers to images to text) and how that data can help in the storytelling process on a specific subject for a particular community. Sensor journalism can be considered the act in which sensors are used as part of the news gathering and reporting process for a specific kind of story that requires a sensor to gather and report data. Such data can include but is not limited to information collected about water, air, temperature, wind and soil.

So in many ways these two areas are intertwined. Sensors collect information from the environment and that information can be transferred into data points that can later be read in aggregate, cleaned, and analyzed. So,  for our air quality project, we are looking at the data from our deployed sensors and reviewing other air quality datasets to better understand what is in the air in San Diego and in turn, tell stories about air quality in San Diego.

IMG_3490To help us delve deeper into this we had another visit from Data Guru Joe Yerardi of inewsource who helped the students to understand the basics of Excel spreadsheets and how data can be read from spreadsheets. A dataset we are working with as part of our air quality project is data we acquired from the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool: CalEnviroScreen Version 2.0 Report that was published last year. The dataset includes information on the pollution burden in California by census tract. The dataset includes all kinds of data about pollutants – ranging from toxic substances to PM2.5 as well as demographic information organized by census tract.

So, Joe took the students through some basic functions and features of the dataset (e.g. how to filter, how to organize, how to average, how to subtotal the data). Of course, one must have a skeptical eye when reviewing any dataset and make sure to review the dataset carefully for outliers, missing information and mistakes in data entry as part of the cleaning process before any analysis begins!

In the upcoming weeks we will be delving deeper into this dataset so stay tuned!

On Wednesday, Kevin Robinson gave us a deeper look into ARCGIS Online and we explored how to add layers to a map as well as how to add data from a csv file to a map.

It will be exciting to see in the weeks ahead how the students combine their news gathering and reporting with the data they have collected and map it! 🙂

Stay tuned!

Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons image by justgrimes

Sean Bonner Visit, Site Launch

This week we had two exciting events. Sean Bonner of Safecast visited our class on Monday and we launched our news section on inewsource on Wednesday!

Bonner Visit

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Sean Bonner showing a map of their sensor deployments around the world.

Bonner visited our class on Monday and spoke with us about the launch of Safecast four years ago this week. They now have 600 of their radiation sensors deployed throughout the world and over 30 million data points.

Anyone can go to the Safecast website and view their numerous maps showing the deployments of the radiation sensors. In addition, anyone can visit their site and download all the data collected from the sensors. They have made the data available in a simple CSV format via CC0 license.


Bonner’s open-data, open-source perspective  for the public good was a refreshing perspective to hear. We also had time for Q&A with Bonner to get his ideas and advice about our air quality sensor and the overall project.

One key point Bonner mentioned that stuck with me and the students after his visit is that sensor journalism is here to stay. The form and way that it comes to be remains to be seen, but journalists and journalism students should be cognizant of this new form of journalism that can open up the path to new storytelling in communities around the world. At the same time, with this new door of opportunity comes many challenges as well.

Bonner also stated that we are on the cusp of seeing how electronic open-source sensors will become more accurate in how they capture data. For our sensor project, we are currently discussing the calibration aspects of our air quality sensors and the role of accurate data when using electronic open-source sensors. Time will tell as more people get involved in the sensor/ sensor journalism movement in the years to come, and we see how these aspects will play out. It’s a crucial one for journalism in which accuracy and truth are at the core of its mission.

New site launched

inewsource section launchedOn Wednesday, inewsource launched our collaborative news section on their site, “What’s in the Air.” Each of the students in the class wrote one factoid about air quality that is featured in the “Meet the Students” section. In the weeks ahead we will have more news coverage to come as the students hit the streets to report on air quality in San Diego.

On the community front, we have several community members who have received their sensor prototypes and are beginning to deploy them in their neighborhoods. We are happy to have their involvement and continual feedback as we work to refine the data collection process from the sensors.

Next week, we will be jumping into more work with GIS and data journalism techniques. Stay tuned!


Data Viz, Legos and GIS

This week in our sensor journalism class we explored the world of data-driven journalism and GIS basics. As we move forward on our sensor journey, these two worlds will become more important as we start to work on the stories and map out the air quality sensor data we are collecting.

Joe Yerardi inewsource

Joe Yerardi of inewsource showing examples of data-driven journalism.

Joe Yerardi, data reporter for inewsource, visited our class on Monday and spoke with us about the world of data-driven journalism and data visualization. He spoke about the power of having data to tell important stories in a community.  It can allow us to see patterns, trends and issues in a different way.

When speaking about data-driven journalism, one needs to know the basics of how to access and download data, how to clean it and how to analyze it. Well, instead of jumping into the nuts and bolts of Excel and showing how to do basic data techniques and math, Joe kicked off the class with Legos. Yes Legos! 🙂

The Lego idea was inspired by Matt Waite,  journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who used Legos to teach data visualization to his students, so we decided to do something similar in the class. So Joe had the students get into groups of three and had them review last year’s MLB stats. They then had to visualize those baseball stats using Legos. We had a blast!

Sometimes the best way to learn about data-driven journalism first – is to learn about its outcome first – how the data is presented, how it is arranged and organized to make it easy for the public to understand. Through this Legos exercise, we were able to achieve that simple premise.

Legos students

Students using Legos to visualize baseball stats.

The idea of using Legos for data visualization is not unusual. Joe showed the class this example from Mashable, in which they used Legos to show the midterm Senate elections from last November.

If any journalism educator is looking to explore how to teach data 101 and data viz, using Legos can be a great way to introduce the concept! Our time with Legos will continue in the class, and we will have Joe return to our class in another week or so to show us Excel, basic math, and data techniques.


Kevin Robinson introducing ARCGIS Online to the students.

This week we also jumped into GIS basics. Kevin Robinson from the Department of Geological Sciences who is co-teaching the class with me this semester, took us on a field trip to the GIS lab in the Sciences building on campus. Kevin showed us the ropes of getting started with ARCGIS Online with a tour of the interface, how to create a map, how to add layers, change the legend, save the map and publish it.

Whew! It was a full week but we definitely learned a lot!

Next week, we will have Sean Bonner, journalist and entrepreneur as well as co-founder and global director of Safecast, visit with us next week to talk about his sensor journalism work.

On the air quality sensor front, we have started deploying our sensors to our community volunteers. We will also be deploying our sensors to specific neighborhoods in San Diego in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!

Public Health Concerns and Air Quality

In Harm's Way investigation was featured on a PBS program called Expose.

“In Harm’s Way” investigation featured segment on PBS program, Expose.

This week we were lucky to have the opportunity to hear from two different experts – one from the perspective journalism and the other from public health.

Lise Olsen, investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle joined us virtually on Monday to talk with us about her work on several news stories she has done related to covering the environment. In particular, she shared with us her experiences in working on the “In Harm’s Way,” report done in 2005 by Dina Cappiello, former reporter for the Houston Chronicle, that examined the air quality in four different areas in Texas. It’s a great investigative story and it shows how the newspaper used sensors to measure air quality in specific areas of Texas. The impact of the story had far-reaching impacts for the community.

Lise shared with us some resources as well when it comes to reporting on air quality/air pollution. Here are some of those resources that any journalist or journalism student may find helpful:

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Dr. Quintana presenting findings from her latest research about air quality along the border.

On Wednesday, we had Dr. Penelope (Jenny) Quintana, professor in the Graduate School of Public Health visit with us and share her research findings on the public health effects of air pollution on vulnerable populations along the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, she presented findings from her recent study that explored air pollution near the San Ysidro border and its effect on the people who cross the border and live in the surrounding communities near the border.

Overall we learned this week that air quality can impact an individual’s well-being. For example, particle pollution can lead to breathing issues, asthma and in some cases, lung cancer.

Nexlegost week, we will be exploring the Science of Winds with Kevin Robinson and Data 101 with Joe Yerardi, reporter of inewsource.

We will be working with Legos next week too — what do legos have to do with journalism and sensors? Stay tuned here to find out! 🙂


Sensor Ethics, Team Blinky

Well we had another exciting week in our sensor journalism class! This week we covered the important aspect of ethics when using sensors for news gathering and reporting. The recent Tow Report on Sensor Journalism has a great section on the ethics of sensor journalism and served as our reading and point of discussion this week.

When doing sensor journalism, there are four key things that every reporter and news organization should discuss before jumping in:

  • Privacy and surveillance issues
  • Building, acquiring and ownership of the technology
  • Accuracy, interpretation and representativeness of the sensor data
  • Community involvement – roles of responsibility and transparency

john keefe

On Wednesday, we had the thrill to do a Google Hangout with sensor guru and Senior Editor for Data News for WNYC, John Keefe. He gave a great talk  (you can check out his short presentation here) about the ways in which he has used sensors in his work at WNYC and his work with Team Blinky. We had time for Q&A and were able to get some new insights and advice on our sensors, calibration, and the challenges with reporting with sensors. It was a thrilling week!

Next week we will have Lise Olsen, investigative reporter for The Houston Chronicle join us for a virtual chat on her data work on environmental news stories and Dr. Penelope Quintana, professor in the Graduate School of Public Health at SDSU to share with us her research on air quality.

More exciting news to come!

Air quality observations, GIS and journalism

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Kevin Robinson giving some geology pointers to the class.

This week was a blast! We had the opportunity to discuss this week the role of GIS in journalism and where environmental news can be explored from this perspective. Using sensors for environmental monitoring, one can see the potential of using GIS as a newsgathering and reporting tool.  We referenced this text in our discussions this week – a blog post by Richard Bedford that details the impact and importance of GIS in journalism today. Kevin Robinson, geologist and co-teacher in this course, gave a great primer on the history of GIS and where it is today. He also showed us some unique maps, one of which was this wind map: http://hint.fm/wind/ and this other map showing real-time wind currents around the world: http://earth.nullschool.net/

We also continued with our air quality observations. The students shared their experiences in placing their sensors in and around San Diego. We had the opportunity to make some informal observations on the campus as well.

Next week we have a virtual chat with sensor guru and Senior Editor for Data News for WNYC, John Keefe. We are looking forward to getting his advice and insight! More updates to come!