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How to use 'homebrew sensors' for reporting

By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Robots were everywhere at the "Cooking with Hardware" conference session, taught by two members of "Team Blinky," WNYC's John Keefe and Liza Stark of Parson The New School for Design and the Institute of Play.


The audience was greeted with Daft Punk and a sensor-laden welcome mat that caused the screen at the front of the room to light up with "Hello! Welcome!" every time they walked in. The audience even got "LED Throwies" as a souvenir. Those are orange, blue, or green LEDs that light up when you tape them to a rare earth battery.


WNYC has previously used sensors to track cicadas in New York. Keefe said 8,000 cicadas were sighted and 800 people participated by putting trackers in the ground. The newsroom has three other large projects in the works that rely on sensors.


This session was meant to introduce the audience to the world of DIY sensor hacking and encourage them to think of how sensors could be used in their newsrooms, too.


Stark demonstrated a range of what she called "homebrew sensors," including an apron sewn with conductive fabric and thread attached to white lights that pulses if it detects she is stressed.


"The lights will slowly fade in hopes of soothing me back into a sea of tranquility," Stark said.


Keefe performed jumping jacks at the front of the room to demonstrate his wired hoodie. Red lights linked to a heart monitor ran up the side of the front zipper. The faster he moved, the faster the red lights pulsed.


All this cool stuff was made possible by Arduinos, a tiny electronic board that fits in the palm of your hand. You can program them with a few lines of code to collect information about the physical world and visualize it in a variety of ways - on an apron in LEDs or on the screen at the front of the room, for example.


So... What does this have to do with journalism?


"That's what I want to know," Keefe said, laughing. He wanted to present to journalists what Team Blinky has discovered in their weekly meetings/cocktail hours. He hoped it would spark an idea for the journalists in the crowd to use sensors in a future project.


One example of a story WNYC is embarking on: equipping bike commuters with sensors of air particulate matter to track air pollution on their way to work. (The project is in partnership with the Columbia University School of Public Health.)


You can find recipes to make your own sensors at, or follow them at @teamblinky.


Anna Boiko-Weyrauch is a public radio reporter turned data journalist. She is a former data munger at NICAR Database Library, graduate of Mizzou journalism masters program, and current member of NPR I-Team.
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