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Stream Lab

A reporting and sensor journalism project exploring the potentials and pitfalls of citizen-science data collection at West Virginia University Reed College of Media for the Fall 2015 term.


For details on the genesis and funding, see the original proposal and this story about the grant award.



  • This is an experiment at the cutting edge of a new field
  • We will work closely with people who know more than we do
  • We will learn as much from our failures as from our successes
  • Our process, findings and activities will be open and intentionally documented for public viewing


  1. To explore the intersection of citizen science and journalism
  2. To explore the benefits and limits of inexpensive sensors as environmental data collectors
  3. To provide information, experiences and feedback to the communities of journalism, public science and open-source sensor hardware


We will follow three main lines of inquiry, based on the objectives:

Pursuing the Story

The core of this class is exploring how citizen science and crowdsourced data collection can feed into the pratice of doing accurate, trustworthy journalism.

  • The benefits and perils of crowdsourcing journalism
  • Basic concepts around building data stories of any kind
  • Issues of data accuracy and precision
    • What happens if we lack both?
    • How do we clearly communicate it to the public?
    • How do these issues advance or limit what we can do?
  • Determining the environmental issues in the WVU area
  • Finding the water stories that need to be told in or around Morgantown
  • Identifying our experts, sources, subjects and characters
  • Determing what information we'll need to tell that story
  • Outlining and prototyping the story spine
  • Designing, writing and editing the story for publication and broadcast

Studying Water

Our project centers on issues of water quality in the streams, lakes and rivers in and near Morgantown, West Virginia. As such, we need to understand that system and the current ways experts monitor water.

  • Understanding the area watershed
  • How is water professionally monitored?
  • Who is doing that monitoring and how often?
  • Where are the monitors and what are their current stories?
  • Where can we work in concert with professional monitors?
  • Where can we provide wider reach with less accurate but much cheaper sensors?
  • What is turbidity, and what can it reasonably tell us?
  • Is our methodology valid -- from a scientific and/or journalistic point of view -- given what's known about water science?

This will also involve working with water experts and researchers, who understand the real science of water quality studies, but also understand the potential for lower-resolution citizen sensors.

  • How do experts study water contamination?
  • What are the possibilities and limits of amateurs using sensors?
  • Where can they overlap?

Using Cheap Sensors

Our operating notion is that wide deployment of cheap, open-source sensors, while individually less precise than professional devices, may together may provide general insights and data to tell stories about our community. In order to put this into action, we need to understand our sensors, figure out how to get them into the field, and figure out how to get the data back.

  • Understanding the Riffle water detector
    • How it works
    • What it does
    • How long it works
    • What data we get from them
    • Maybe build one from scratch
  • Determining where to deploy the sensors
  • Figuring out how to deploy and retrieve the sensors
  • Scheduling times to check on them and retreive data
  • Determining who to work with in the community and how to partner with them


Along the way, and in the end, we will publish our process, findings, failings and the final story in several ways:

  • On an ongoing project blog
  • In posts and communications with the open-source, public science community
  • In journalism-oriented sites (such as Neiman Lab or Source)
  • Through project-in-progress coverage in local media
  • Through final findings in local media and elsewhere


  • Identify interesting issues and stories could we study in streams / water bodies in the area
  • Understand expert water quality study
  • Understand amateur water quality study (like Riffle)
    • Exploring the device
    • Exploring the principles
    • Testing it out
    • Understanding the data
  • Figure out where to deploy the sensors
  • Figure out when to deploy them
  • Deploy
  • Check on them
  • Reterive
  • Data analysis and interpretation
  • Story craft and development
  • Story publishing and distribution


  • About the project
  • Capture hashtagged content
  • Student blog posts
  • Instructor blog posts
  • Pictures
  • Graphs
  • Maps
  • Link out to github or other site for
    • Data files
    • Code
    • Raw materials


Dana Coester

  • Academic and administrative lead
  • Grading protocols
  • Grant deliverable tracking

Emily Corio

  • Liaison to community contacts for watershed and water researchers issues
  • Liaison with local journalism organization

John Keefe

  • Editorial and technical lead

Dave Mistich

  • Journalistic partner for regional innovation

John Temple

  • Helping to coordinate and assess class evolution


See the latest schedule in the file.


  • Confirm Todd Petty for August 31
  • Schedule Don Blair for visit to WVA
  • Schedule a mapping workshop
  • A github workshop