What will the Internet of Things do to journalism?
Why sensors, networked displays and the Internet of Things belong in the digital strategy of every editorial office.
A morning in 2029. Even before you check your social media accounts as a freelance journalist, open the sensor dashboard on the smart mirror in your kitchen. The rock concert in the town park yesterday seems to have been a complete success: The sensors report that it was loud and crowded. Even their geophone on the market square still detected vibrations from the dancers. They switch off the Smart Mirror and now see themselves as a mirror image. The coffee machine beeps: Your Flat White is ready. Off to the office. After just a few steps, the smart coffee-to-go cup of Newsmug has arrived in your hand at the cultural section and reads out the concert review. The concert critic confirms what the sensor data indicate in a euphoric night review. Your sensor network has also impressively captured the drop in temperature last night. The precipitation alarm triggered reliably at six o’clock in the morning and warned your readers. Many have thought of the umbrella, as you can see from the overflow. Only you yourself have forgotten yours. But that is unimportant, because a mail with the urgently expected analysis values from the laboratory has just arrived: The all-clear — no asbestos in the primary school, where the construction workers had torn out insulation boards without any worries.
Storytelling using the Internet of Things
I call telling things through the Internet of Things “Journalism of Things”. This journalism of things is not just a variation of data journalism: it’s not just about a new form of old playout device or a new control concept with language instead of buttons. It’s about much more than that. Just think briefly of how the Internet has changed journalism. How it was when we walked the world without a connection in our pockets. How unreal it seemed that the Internet would one day be the core of everyday journalism. That’s how we are today with the Internet of Things again. It’s there, it’s spreading — and it’s starting to change journalism as well.
Because the Internet of Things will not disappear either. The number of connected objects around us is constantly increasing. Experts estimate that there will be 25 billion objects by 2022. Cars are already connected on the Internet of vehicles and exchange traffic jam and lightning ice information, heating thermostats receive current weather information from temperature sensors on the Internet of Home, kitchen mixers order the ingredients for the trend recipe from the Internet of Food.
The interconnectedness of things takes their records to the global net, to those who analyze their data and base business models on it. This is how the “Internet of Things” is created. It is rapidly and inexorably conquering our everyday lives. “The point is no longer far where we simply call networked things things things,” writes journalist Alex Handy. He’s right, I think. And we journalists? So far, we’ve been standing on the edge of the scenery, describing what’s developing there. That’s a good thing.
The technology is at our hand
The future scenario described above would already be technically feasible today. I am sure that I have experimented with temperature sensors and geophones myself, and the prototypes of smart mirrors and newsmugs that I have built are within reach. Why did I start to experiment? Because I don’t want to leave the next technical development to large corporations. I want to understand the effects of the Internet of Things. And I believe that the journalism of things deserves a place in the digital strategy of all media.
We equipped three dairy cows with sensors for WDR. In the “Super Cows” project, they reported for 30 days on what constitutes the life of a dairy cow. Among other things, the cows had a pH sensor in their rumen and some had a calving sensor on their tail before calving. We are currently accompanying three beehives equipped with sensors through the year with WDR: The queen bees Ruby, Cleo and Linda report on #bienenlive (#beeslive) from the inside of the hive. Live, via newsletter and on Whatsapp. The Blackbox bee hive becomes a transparent box for our audience.
Many Good Examples
Other colleagues have also recognized the potential of networked sensors. John Keefe inspired radio listeners to build a sensor that tracks cicadas. The Swiss investigative journalist François Pilet and his colegue Emmanuel Freudenthal uses the sensor data from landing airplanes at Geneva Airport to report on Twitter when airplanes of dictators land. You might ask yourself who might be interested — apparently some, because the GVA Dictator Alert currently has more than 19,000 followers on Twitter, far more than many other journalistic offerings on the Internet. It creates transparency and shows what would otherwise remain hidden.
“How big is Stuttgart’s invisible pollution really — and what health hazards are in the air?” This is the teaser of the Stuttgarter Zeitung for its Particular Matter Radar. The problem was right on their doorstep: the Neckartor in Stuttgart has become known as the “dirtiest intersection in Germany” because of the high level of particulate matter. The city’s lungs are groaning. The air is deeply saturated with fine soot particles. The limit values have been exceeded here for years. Only here? Together with luftdaten.io and the Open Knowledge Lab Stuttgart, editor Jan Georg Plavec and his team succeeded in motivating readers to build more than 500 particulate matter sensors and in supplying the data to the editors. In the city, home of the car manufacturers Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, the discussion about driving bans for certain vehicles is particularly heated.
A team around Hendrik Lehmann from the Tagesspiegel showed the big city from another perspective with the project “Radmesser” (“Bicycle Measurements”): This project deals with a comparatively small everyday problem and combines it with a rather unknown rule: the minimum distance when overtaking cyclists. Overtaking close by is a constant source of danger for cyclists in the big city. There was no data on this problem. Until Radmesser team developed a sensor, built it and convinced 100 readers to attach it to their bicycles. The team was able to show that the minimum side distance is often not observed.
The journalism of things also takes place with things in the hands of readers. When the networked Barbie discusses world politics with children or a cyclist shares his data with the editorial staff, readers become part of the research. “The journalism of things needs its own formats that think stories live and involve citizens in order to establish trust between the journalist and his readership,” as we have just formulated it in our manifesto for this new journalism. Together with Astrid Csuraji, I set out to explore the site of the new recipients. tactile.news is the name of our start-up, which is dedicated to the question of what tangible receivers could look like after the smartphone — if they have the shape of a toy figure, for example.
We’re still in the early days. It is not for nothing that journalism professors Wiebke Loosen and Andreas Hepp call what we do “pioneer journalism”. We are the first adventurers on unknown terrain. Many questions remain unanswered: How could an appropriation of technologies be used for critical reporting? How can journalists, together with sensors and networked devices, report on places and topics that would never be accessible to individuals?
The journalism of things is feasible. It is not very expensive. Anyone can learn the basics in a few hours. What we need above all for this is courage and curiosity about a technology that will fundamentally change narration.