Knight Center
Knight Center


ISOJ panelists showcase drones, sensors, bots and other innovative journalism tools

Matt Waite, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Journalism Drone Lab test flies his drone at the 2014 ISOJ on the UT-Austin campus, Apr. 4, 2014. Lauren Schneider/Knight Center.

The first group of panelists for the 15th International Symposium for Online Journalism was not shy about showcasing their wearable sensor gadgets, story-writing algorithms, wrist-mounted cameras and even a remote-controlled drone. 

The panel, “Bots, drones, sensors, wearables, etc.: The new tools for journalists,” was moderated by journalist Janine Warner on April 4 and featured a group of experts who harness innovative technologies to change the way journalists tell their stories.

Larry Birnbaum

The first speaker was Larry Birnbaum, professor of computer science and journalism at Northwestern University and chief scientific advisor at Narrative Science, a company dedicated to gleaning valuable information from large amounts of data.

Larry Birnbaum, professor of computer science and journalism at Northwestern University, at the 2014 ISOJ on the UT-Austin campus, Apr. 4, 2014. Lauren Schneider/Knight Center.

Birnbaum, who works at the intersection of journalism and technology, said data-driven stories were useful for covering sports-related, financial, health and even civic topics. However, he added that showing people a chart or graph of data is not enough to explain to them what is going on.

“The data do not speak for themselves, we have to give a voice to the data,” Birnbaum said. “There are stories in the data, but the data themselves are not stories.”

At Narrative Science, Birnbaum and his co-workers created automated computer algorithms, popularly known as “bots,” that use editorial values coded into them by engineers to write meaningful data-centric stories. However, Birnbaum added that many people do not understand how these algorithms and their values work, which would be useful when tackling the question of who is accountable for what the bots write.

John Keefe

Following Birnbaum was John Keefe, senior editor for Data News and Journalism Technology at the media organization WNYC, who talked about how journalists can use cheap and “do-it-yourself” sensors with ease.

Keefe spoke about the small, easily-programmable Arduino computer, which can be used to create new gadgets. Arduino was used to create the sensors behind WNYC’s Cicada Tracker Project, which tracked the return of cicadas to the Eastern United States for the first time in 17 years.

WNYC received an unprecedented amount of audience engagement after inviting their listeners to participate in the project, with 800 people either building or buying their own sensors.

Keefe also showed the audience a wearable device that monitored his heartbeat, replicating each pulse with LED lights. He also used Arduino to make a wrist-mounted device to monitor his sleep, which launched WNYC’s new Clock Your Sleep project, tracking the sleep patterns of people in New York City. 

Keefe’s main point was how easy it was for someone to create new tools that can be used to monitor events and patterns that would otherwise be hard to discern.

“These are things that might be good for journalism,” Keefe said. “We’re doing this with sensors and you can do it too, it’s not hard.”

Nicholas Whitaker

Next up was Nicholas Whitaker, media outreach lead at Google, who has helped trained approximately 6,000 journalists from all over the world find new ways of using tools they are already familiar with to cover stories more effectively.

Whitaker spoke about Google Media Tools, an online guideline of the company’s tools with tips for journalists, available in close to 76 different languages, most recently in Spanish. These resources include data visualization tools like the Google Maps Engine, video-hosting services like YouTube and interactive media like Google Hangouts.

Whitaker sees these tools as a great opportunity for entrepreneurial journalists to learn new skills and spread their stories more easily, especially since they already possess the hardware to produce a variety of content. He described smartphones as being full production studios that fit in every journalist’s pocket.

“We’re really trying to inspire journalists to use our tools, to use them more effectively and use them in an ecosystem where they’re already using tools,” Whitaker said.

Tim Pool

Tim Pool, producer at Vice Media, stepped up to the podium with a backpack full of gadgets and wearing a camera mounted on his watch. While this camera and other wearable technology make it easier to record video or take photos, Pool said it was not too different from what mobile devices could already do.

Smartphones revolutionized technology by making the Internet accessible virtually everywhere, he said. Though not vastly superior to this technology, tools like Google Glass make it easier to create information and transmit it across the world more quickly, something he considers very valuable for journalism.

One of Pool’s favorite new tools was an augmented-reality application available for Google Glass and the iPhone called Word Lens. When users point their cameras at text in foreign languages the app instantly translates it into English. He said smartphones were currently his favorite tools to use, though he believed they still had a lot of untapped potential.

Social media is another useful resource for connecting people across the world, Pool said, though it brings up problems of ownership and copyright. For this reason he is working with a team to develop an application called that will make it easier to add name, logo, location and timestamp information to photos.

In an interview with the Knight Center after his panel, Pool reiterated his appreciation for smartphones.

“You can do anything. You can record videos, you can stream live, you can communicate on social media, you can send text messages,” Pool said. “They’re extremely powerful little devices.”

Matt Waite

Matt Waite interviewed by Knight Center staff.

The last panelist, who carried with him a small remote-controlled drone, was Matt Waite, professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Journalism Drone Lab. To Waite, drones are an ideal platform for taking great videos and photos with relative easy, giving a journalist a viewpoint that would otherwise be unattainable.

This same ability to fly and take wide shots of a city or a neighborhood also makes drones a potential threat to private property and privacy in the eyes of some, which leads to interesting problems for journalists, legislators and federal aviation regulators, according to Waite.

“I think the next five years are some of the more litigious we’re going to see in terms of journalism tools,” he said.

Although Waite felt the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worried too much about the impact drones could have on flying vehicles, he understood the necessity to regulate their use closer to the ground. Drones use sharp blades to propel themselves into the air and have been known to turn themselves off and crash. For this reason Waite believes the FAA needs to work out the legality of drones to prevent people from getting hurt.

Waite then activated his drone, making it hover over his attentive audience, recording them with it and showcasing the automated machine’s reporting abilities.


Below is our Storify of the panel:


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