Is sensor journalism feasible, or even ethical? Columbia’s Tow Center hopes to find out

If data journalism means the analysis of and reporting on data sets that already exist, sensor journalism goes a step further: Organizations and journalists using sensor technology to create their own real-time data and then report on it. But is sensor journalism feasible or sustainable?

Columbia University plans to explore these issues, Emily Bell, director of the Columbia J-School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said at Betaworks Betaday on Thursday. To that end, the Tow Center will run a weekend workshop on sensor journalism in June and will fund a few projects. And next year, Bell said, the Tow Center plans to run a “sensor newsroom classroom” in partnership with the architecture school.

Some of the challenges are technical: How can journalists and newsrooms build their own low-cost sensing techniques? WNYC’s John Keefe, for instance, built a cicada tracker to figure out exactly when the expected cicada plague will hit New York City this summer. Can other organizations do the same thing?

“How do you get the really efficient things from sense networks in a way that helps you do human reporting?” Bell said. The techniques also create ethical questions: “We are moving into this world where the line between transparency and privacy is constantly in tension. When you can survey everything, what do you report?”

“Practically, we’re very close to being able to survey most of what people do most of the time,” Bell told Betaworks’ Andrew McLaughlin. “I come from Europe, where everything is solved by regulation, In America, the momentum is very much with business rather than the individual. [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt said at the journalism school the other day that privacy is all about making good judgment calls about what you put online. That’s just not true. You can’t make adequate judgment calls to control your own data. That’s only going to get worse.”