John Keefe, senior editor for data news at public radio station WNYC in New York, and Dave Mistich, digital editor and coordinator for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, worked with faculty and students on a water quality reporting project using new sensor technology as the College’s third and fourth Innovators-in-Residence. The program was expanded in 2015 with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to embed innovators from both national and regional organizations in the classroom. The Innovators-in-Residence co-teach experimental courses, exposing students to emerging technology and creating new practices for the industry.

Keefe and Mistich partnered with Associate Professor Dana Coester,  Teaching Assistant Professor Emily Corio and Associate Professor John Temple to launch “Stream Lab,” a community reporting project focused on water quality. Students enrolled in the experimental journalism class conduct research using sensors to increase public engagement around contaminated water issues in West Virginia.

The project also included investigative and environmental reporters from West Virginia media and faculty from the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Public Lab: a DIY enviornmental science community

The sensors, dubbed the Riffle (Remote Independent Friendly Field-Logger Electronics) by MIT research fellow and inventor Don Blair, were placed in public waterways in the region as part of a beta test of the prototype. Students and community members were able to access readings of real-time water quality parameters and test various functions of the sensor’s data collection.

Keefe, a pioneer in sensor reporting best known for his groundbreaking sensor project Cicada Tracker, said this experiment is new and exciting territory.

“For this project, used inexpensive, water-sensing devices that didn’t even exist a few months ago,” said Keefe. “I’m excited to work with WVU students, staff and partners to explore what’s possible, to see what stories we can find and to share our success – and our failures – with the wider journalism and public-science communities.”

WVU Reed College of Media Innovator-in-Residence John Keefe speaks to class on his first immersion trip to WVU. The class used sensors to measure pollution levels in West Virginia waterways.
WVU Reed College of Media Innovator-in-Residence John Keefe speaks to class on his first immersion trip to WVU. Keefe introduced students to the sensors they would use to measure pollution levels in West Virginia waterways.

The project was financed through a $35,000 micro-grant from the Online News Association (ONA). ONA announced earlier this year that “Stream Lab” won its competitive Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, which encourages journalism programs to experiment with new ways of providing news and information and to seed collaborative news experiments in living labs – their communities.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mistich says that, given recent evolutions in the media industry and in his own newsroom, projects like “Stream Lab” can prepare students to be leaders in media innovation.

“At West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’ve put an increasing emphasis on digital news. From live blogging to data visualizations to aggregating breaking news through social media, we’ve seen how much experimentation and innovation can capture an audience and keep them coming back,” said Mistich. “It’s an exciting time to be a news professional and an even more exciting time to help the next generation of students who are bound to take the field to a whole new frontier.”

Students in the stream lab experimental journalism class launch water sensors in the Monongahela River.
Students in the stream lab experimental journalism class launch water sensors in the Monongahela River.

Associate Professor Dana Coester, who is the creative director for the College’s Media Innovation Center and directs the Innovator-in-Residence program, says collaborating with industry professionals gives students a unique learning experience.

“What I love most about our Innovator-in-Residence program is it gives our faculty, students and friends in the industry an opportunity to experiment and problem solve together around shared passions,” said Coester. “It’s serious work – media that matters – but it’s also fun. There is a wonderful energy and camaraderie that comes out of this unique kind of classroom.”

John Keefe leads WNYC’s data news team, which infuses the station’s journalism with data reporting, investigations, visualizations and interactives. Keefe previously led WNYC’s news operation and is an adjunct instructor in the Journalism + Design program at The New School, an adviser to CensusReporter.org and part of a small hardware-hacking group called Team Blinky. He blogs at johnkeefe.net and tweets at @jkeefe.

As West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s first digital editor and coordinator, Mistich oversees news coverage online and works with the news staff in developing new and unique ways of telling stories on the Web. He is an award-winning reporter and has contributed to National Public Radio newscasts and newsmagazine programs including “All Things Considered.” He tweets at @davemistich.

water found above and below a new fracking site in Morgantown, which is located near the Monongahela River and Monongalia County’s water intake. They will measure changes in conductivity and temperature to determine if data correlations point to possible pollutant sources.

SENSOR LOCATION
Students used the sensors to look at differences in water found above and below a new fracking site in Morgantown, which is located near the Monongahela River and Monongalia County’s water intake. They measured changes in conductivity and temperature to determine if data correlations point to possible pollutant sources.

Sensors, which are contained in free-floating bottles, covered in mesh and roped to cinder blocks, will also measure the time of data collection and the GPS coordinates.

A NEW KIND OF SENSOR
Professional-grade sensors have existed for quite some time but tend to be expensive. StreamLab collects data using a cheap, open-source alternative. Not only are the sensors inexpensive, but they also fit conveniently inside a plastic bottle. This means another person with a different enclosed design can easily use the sensor hardware.

“Simple to use, low-cost sensors like the Riffle make water data accessible to journalists in ways that have never been possible before,” said Coester.

PUBLIC SCIENCE=COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Because everything about the sensors is open-source and affordable, “Stream Lab’s” sensor experiment has the potential to inform work by future groups.

“There is something about a DIY maker project that makes reporting and science a touchable, demystified act that is within hand’s reach,” said Coester. “That’s not only important for our students but our community members as well.”

“Our hope for the project is to raise awareness about water quality issues in West Virginia,” said strategic communications senior Birdie Hawkins, who is a double major in recreation, parks and tourism resources. “We think community participation is key to achieving that goal.”

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