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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

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Teams at the conference built temperature and humidity sensors like the one pictured. (Photo: Jayla Lee) Teams at the conference built temperature and humidity sensors like the one pictured. (Photo: Jayla Lee)

Sensing the News

SDSU hosted its first-ever public sensor journalism conference with students and journalists from across the country.
By Jayla Lee

Students, innovators and journalists from across the country gathered on campus Feb. 11 for San Diego State University’s first-ever “Sensing the News” conference, in collaboration with the School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Attendees learned about sensor journalism through workshops, panelist discussions, team projects, and opportunities to hack solutions with sensors.

Journalists and individuals are now using sensors to develop stories and find new information about their communities including measuring a range of environmental elements from temperature to air pollution.

“Sensor journalism extends the abilities of humans to sense their own environment,” said guest speaker Lily Bui, a doctoral candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Organized by JMS associate professor Amy Schmitz Weiss and CIR Chief of Staff Kristin Belden, the event proved a successful collaboration for the campus and community.

“We were excited to partner with Amy and her team,” Belden said. “It was a positive experience for us, particularly because we got to work so much with the students. It’s not always that we have a group of students that are able to join. For us, it is really important to be working with folks at that capacity.”

Implications of the technology bring new awareness to San Diego’s air quality. Schmitz Weiss and geology lecturer Kevin Robinson led a class of journalism and geology students in 2015 to build electronic open-source sensors to test and monitor air quality in San Diego. The class shared sensors with residents in six communities, collected data and wrote about results in unique stories including “Air pollutants contribute to Barrio Logan asthma rates,” “Industry, freeways create toxic brew in Chicano Park” and “Cooking worsens air inside.”

“The students who participated in the project had a lot of fun,” said Schmitz Weiss. “I think it allowed for them to have a different perspective of looking at journalism, but also looking at science and technology, and citizen science. The experience itself also allowed them to have a different mindset and framework to understand how they can view the world and think about journalism in a different way than we often do… where it’s more collaborative, interdisciplinary, and brings in aspects of technology that can highlight different facets of what is happening in the world around us.”

JMS partnered with the Department of Geological Sciences and inewsource for the project.

The experience

The conference began with guest lectures, followed by teams building temperature and humidity sensors. They learned the basics of the raspberry Pi and breadboard, main pieces of the sensor. CIR senior applications developers provided step-by-step instructions.

“The hands-on building of the sensors was a really important piece of the day,” Belden said. “It gave folks a real baseline of understanding for what we were talking about and really showcased just how accessible this technology is.”   

The remainder of the conference included panel discussions and team efforts to hack solutions. The winning team, “Urban Vibrations,” received resources post-event to pursue the development of its project. It proposed using sound sensors to examine noise pollution in the area surrounding SDSU.

“After attending this conference and working with a team of professionals to build my own sensor, I realized the importance of data journalism," said second-year journalism student Katie Stanchis. “I’m eager to further my studies in this field because I know it will help me out career-wise.”

Guest speakers at the conference included:
  • Schmitz Weiss
  • Bui
  • Robinson
  • Andy Donohue, managing editor, CIR
  • Christine Sunu, creative director, flashBANG Product Development
  • Michael Corey, senior news applications developer, CIR
  • Scott Pham, senior news applications developer, CIR
  • Eric Sagara, senior data reporter, CIR
  • Eric Frost, director of graduate program in Homeland Security, SDSU
  • Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor, inewsource
  • Sean Bonner, co-founder and global director, Safecast
  • Andy Wickert, assistant professor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota
  • Maria del Carmen Lamadrid, senior UX designer, CivicConnect
  • Travis Good, co-founder and producer, San Diego Maker Faire
  • Lila Higgins, manager, Citizen Science at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
  • Sam Ward, senior digital producer, CIR


Schmitz Weiss noted the quality of the sensor determines the quality users receive. Journalists and users must question what the sensor does and what it captures to remain accountable.

“There is currently no standard in the industry overall worldwide for manufacturers and how they build these sensors,” said Schmitz Weiss. “As a result, it is really on the individual to be aware and know that is part of the territory with using this technology. It might entail going through several sensor technology iterations, different kits, to find the one that is going to help capture what you are looking for.”

Sensors can also only capture data from a relatively small space. Placing an air quality sensor in one part of a classroom will not tell the air quality for the entire building, just the immediate area. Users must employ a large total number of sensors.

Moving forward

Sensor journalism remains a learning process. It is experimental, collaborative, and requires courage.

“You shouldn’t be afraid to learn the science behind what you are covering,” said Hearn.

Schmitz Weiss and Robinson have in the works a curriculum for high school science teachers. They hope to create more opportunities to learn about sensor technology and combat fear of the unknown.

“Technology sometimes just scares people by the term” said Schmitz Weiss. “It is really important in efforts like this, whether it’s a community-led effort or a journalism effort, that there is education and transparency throughout the whole process. Letting people know that, by them participating in it, these are the pitfalls, challenges, and opportunities with using this kind of technology and being open and upfront about it.”