Journalists have long tried to mine government data and use social science methods to produce important stories. Their earliest efforts – dating back to the late 60s – were called “computer assisted reporting,” or CAR. This often involved a lot of time filling out Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, followed by frustrating phone calls to actually obtain the data.
Slowly but surely, that’s changing. Thanks in large part to the hard work of open government advocates, government data has never before been more public or easier to work with. Because of big data, data journalism is the new CAR.
The process isn’t perfect. Journalists still routinely have to file information requests for many stories, especially when the information is politically sensitive, but it is getting easier to get the big picture and find where problems lie. But perhaps more importantly, even if a journalist does obtain and scrape the data, that’s still relying on a gatekeeper for information.
Wouldn’t it be better if journalists and citizens could source their own data, instead of relying on gatekeepers? Why hunt for the data, when the data can come to you? I considered the potential for sensor journalism (or node journalism) in a recent post:
“Back when I was working on my master’s project at the University of Illinois, I needed information about pollution and toxins in a South-Side Chicago neighborhood. A group of concerned citizens living next the coal-fired power plant in that neighborhood resorted to collecting soil samples to do just that (results showed a dangerous level of lead on the ground). It actually took a fair bit of political will to get state environmental officials to set up and service a pollution monitoring station.
I had to get environmental data from the state during my investigation, so I didn’t get to pick where my sensor nodes were located. Pollution totals were not collected on a daily or hourly basis, nor were they comprehensive per the number of pollutants. I do wonder how much more thorough my investigation could have been if I deployed my own network of sensors in that neighborhood.”