Tag Archives: drones

The Past, Present and Future of Sensor Journalism

This weekend I had the pleasure of being invited to the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School for a workshop on sensor journalism.

The workshop (hashtag #towsenses) brought together a “community of journalists, hackers, makers, academics and researchers to explore the use of sensors in journalism; a crucial source of information for investigative and data journalists.” And, it was fascinating to talk about what role sensors – from the Air Quality Egg to aerial drones – should, could or might play in journalism. Even more fun with a room full of DIYers, academics and journalists with interesting titles such as “applications division manager” or “data journalist.” Most fascinating was a panel on the ethics of sensors in journalism of which I hope to write about another time.

There is, of course, a desire to treat sensors as something new in journalism. And for good reason. Much like I’m sure there were early adopters of camera’s in the newsroom, cameras probably didn’t radically change the newsroom until they were (relatively) cheap, portable and gave you something your audience wanted. Today we may be experiencing something similar with sensors. The costs of creating sophisticated sensors is falling and/or other objects, like our cell phones, can be repurposed to be sensors. The question is… like cameras’ how can the emergence of sensors help journalists? And how might they distract them?

My point is, well, they already do sensor journalism. Indeed, I’d argue that somewhere between 5-15% of many news broadcasts are consumed with sensor journalism. At the very minimum the weather report is a form of sensor journalism. The meteorological group is a part of the news media organization that is completely reliant on sensors to provide it with information which it must analyze and turn into relevant information for its audience. And it is a very specific piece of knowledge that matters to the audience. They are not asking for how the weather came about, but merely and accurate prediction of what the weather will be. For good or (as I feel) for ill, there is not a lot of discussions about climate change on the 6 o’clock news weather report. (As an aside Clay Johnson cleverly pointed out that weather data may also be the government’s oldest, most mature and economically impactful open data set).

Of course weather data is not the only form of sensor journalism going on on a daily basis. Traffic reports frequently rely on sensors, from traffic counting devices to permanently mounted visual sensors (cameras!) that allow one to count, measure, and even model and predict traffic. There may still be others.

So there are already some (small) parts of the journalism world that are dependent on sensors. Of course, some of you may not consider traffic reports and weather reports to be journalism since it is not, well, investigative journalism. But these services are important, have tended to be part of news gathering organizations and are in constant demand by consumers. And while demand may not always the most important metric, it is an indication that this matters to people. My broader point here is that, there is part of the media community that is used to dealing with a type of sensor journalism. Yes, it has low ethical risk (we aren’t pointing these sensors at humans really) but it does mean there are policies, processes, methodologies and practices for thinking about sensors that may exist in news organizations, if not in the newsroom.

It is also a window in the the types of stories that sensors have, at least in the past, been good at helping out with. Specifically there seem to be two criteria: things that both occur at, and that a large number of people want to know about at, a high frequency. Both weather and traffic fit the bill, lots of people want to know about them, often twice a day, if not more frequently. So it might be worth thinking about, what are the other types of issues or problems that interest journalist that do, or could conform, with that criteria? In addition, if we are able to lower the cost of gathering and analyzing the data, does it become feasible, or profitable to serve smaller, niche audiences?

None of this is to say that sensors can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be used to cover investigative journalism projects. The work Public Labs did in helping map the extent of the oil spill along the gulf coast is a fantastic example of where sensors may be critical in journalism (as well as advocacy and evidence building) as has been the example of groups like Safecast and others who monitored radioactivity levels in Japan after the  Fukushima disaster. Indeed I think the possibilities of sensors in investigative journalism are both intriguing, and potentially very, very bright. I just love for us to build off of work that is already being done – even if it is in the (journalistically) mundane space of traffic and weather rather than imagine we are beginning with an entirely blank slate.




Here's a prediction: A Canadian F-35 will be shot down by a drone in 2035

One of the problems with living in a country like Canada is that certain people become the default person on certain issues. It’s a small place and the opportunity for specialization (and brand building) is small, so you can expect people to go back to the same well a fair bit on certain issues. I know, when it comes to Open Data, I can often be that well.

Yesterday’s article by Jack Granastein – one of the country’s favourite commentator’s on (and cheerleaders of) all things military – is a great case in point. It’s also a wonderful example of an article that is not designed to answer deep questions, but merely reassure readers not to question anything.

For those not in the know, Canada is in the midst of a scandal around the procurement of new fighter jets which, it turns out, the government not only chose to single source, but has been caught lying misleading the public about the costs despite repeated attempts by both the opposition and the media to ask for the full cost. Turns out the plans will cost twice as much as previously revealed, maybe more. For those interested in reading a case study in how not to do government procurement Andrew Coyne offers a good review in his two latest columns here and here. (Granastein, in the past, has followed the government script, using the radically low-ball figure of $16 billion, it is now accepted to be $26 billion).

Here is why Jack Granastein’s piece is so puzzling. The fact is, there really aren’t that many articles about whether the F-35 is the right plane or not. People are incensed about being radically mislead about the cost and the sole source process – not that we chose the F-35. But Granastein’s piece is all about assuring us that a) a lot of thought has gone into this choice and b) we shouldn’t really blame the military planners (nor apparently, the politicians). It is the public servants fault. So, some thoughts.

These are some disturbing and confusing conclusions. I have to say, it is very, very depressing to read someone as seasoned and knowledgeable as Granastein write:

But the estimates of costs, and the spin that has so exercised the Auditor-General, the media and the Opposition, are shaped and massaged by the deputy minister, in effect DND’s chief financial officer, who advises the minister of national defence.

Errr….Really? I think they are shaped by them at the direction or with the approval of the Minister of Defence. I agree that the Minister and Cabinet probably are not up to speed on the latest in airframe technology and so probably aren’t hand picking the fighter plane. But you know what they are up to speed on? Spinning budgets and political messages to sell to the public. To somehow try to deflect the blame onto the public servants feels, well, like yet another death nail for the notion of ministerial accountability.

But even Granastein’s love of the F-35 is hard to grasp. Apparently:

“we cannot see into the future, and we do not know what challenges we might face. Who foresaw Canadian fighters participating in Kosovo a dozen years ago? Who anticipated the Libyan campaign?”

I’m not sure I want to live and die on those examples. I mean in Libya alone our CF-18’s were joined by F-16s, Rafale fighters, Mirage 2000s and Mirage 2000Ds, Tornados, Eurofighter Typhoons, and JAS 39C Gripen (are you bored yet?). Apparently there were at least 7 other choices that would have worked out okay for the mission. The Kosovo mission had an even wider assortment of planes. Apparently, this isn’t a choice of getting it “just right” more like, “there are a lot of options that will work.”

But looking into the future there are some solid and strong predictions we can make:

1) Granastein himself argued in 2010 that performing sovereignty patrols in the arctic is one of the reasons we need to buy new planes. Here is a known future scenario. So frankly I’m surprised he’s bullish on the F-35s since the F-35’s will not be able to operate in the arctic for at least 5 years and may not for even longer. Given that, in that same article, Granastein swallowed the now revealed to be bogus total cost of owernship figures provided by the Department of National Defence hook, line and sinke, you think he might be more skeptical about other facts. Apparently not.

2) We can’t predict the future. I agree. But I’m going to make a prediction anyway. If Canada fights an enemy with any of the sophistication that would require us to have the F-35 (say, a China in 25 years) I predict that an F-35 will get shot down by a pilotless drone in that conflict.

What makes drones so interesting is that because they don’t have to have pilots they can be smaller, faster and more maneuverable. Indeed in the 1970s UAVs were able to outmaneuver the best US pilots of the day. Moreover, the world of aviation may change very quickly in the coming years. Everyone will tell you a drone can’t beat a piloted plane. This is almost likely true today (although a pilot-less drone almost shot down a Mig in 2002 in Iraq).

But may have two things going for them. First, if drones become cheaper to build and operate, and you don’t have to worry about losing the expensive pilot, you may be able to make up for competency with numbers. Imagining an F-35 defeating a single drone – such as the US Navy’s experimental X-47B – is easy. What about defeating a swarm of 5 of them that are working seamlessly together?

Second, much like nature, survival frequently favours those who can reproduce frequently. The F-35 is expected to last Canada 30-35 years. Yes there will be upgrades and changes, but that is a slow evolutionary pace. In that time, I suspect we’ll see somewhere between 5 (and likely a lot more) generations of drones. And why not? There are no pilots to retrain, just new lessons from the previous generation of drones to draw from, and new technological and geo-political realities to adapt to.

I’m not even beginning to argue that air-to-air combat capable drones are available today, but it isn’t unlikely that they could be available in 5-10 years. Of course, many air forces hate talking about this because, well, drones mean no more pilots and air forces are composed of… well… pilots. But it does suggest that Canada could buy a fighter that is much cheaper, would still enable us to participate in missions like Kosovo and Libya, without locking us into a 30-35 year commitment at the very moment the military aerospace industry is entering what is possibly the most disruptive period in its history.

It would seem that, at the very least, since we’ve been mislead about pretty much everything involved in this project, asking these questions now feels like fair game.

(Oh, and as an aside, as we decide to pay somewhere between $26-44 Billion for fighter planes, our government cut the entire $5 million year budget of the National Aboriginal Health Organization which over research and programs, in areas like suicide prevention, tobacco cessation, housing and midwifery. While today Canada ranks 6th in the world in the UN’s Quality of Life index, it was calculated that in 2007 Canada’s first nation’s population, had they been ranked as a separate group, would have ranked 63rd. Right above healthy countries like Belarus, Russia and Libya. Well at least now we’ll have less data about the problem, which means we won’t know to worry about it.)


Attack of the Drones – How Surveillance May Change our Culture

I’ve been following the rise of do it yourself (DIY) drones for a few years now, ever since Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, introduced me to the topic in a podcast. And yes, I’m talking about flying drones… Like those the US Air Force uses to monitor – and attack – enemy forces in Afghanistan. Except, in the case of DIY drones, they are smaller, cheaper, and are being built by a growing legion of hobbyists, companies and enthusiasts all around the world, many of whom are sharing open source UAV plans that can be downloaded off the internet.

You many not know it, but there could be drones in your neighborhood. And this has real implications.

Take, for example, a story that really grabbed my attention a few weeks ago. An animal rights group called SHARK chose to deploy a drone to monitor a live pigeon shoot taking place on private land.  It turns out the mere presence of their drone caused the shoot to be cancelled. To begin with, that says a lot of drone’s effectiveness. But what was really interesting was how, in frustration, one or some of the shooters then hid and shot the drone out of the sky.

Think about this.

Here you have a group using what is essentially a mini-helicopter to monitor an activity taking place on what is private property. Then, in response,  the other party fires live rounds at the drone and causes it to crash. And all of playing out near a US highway (not a major one, but still, a public road). This is a privacy, legal, and public safety nightmare. The policy and societal implications are significant.

And this is not an isolated use. As the Economist pointed out in its excellent write up on civilian drones in this week’s Quarterly Technology Review, drones are already being used by an environmental group to locate and track Japanese whalers. In the US several police forces already operate drones – including one in Texas which, frighteningly, has the capacity to launch grenades. George Clooney funds a non-profit that uses satellites to monitor Sudan in an effort to prevent atrocities through transparency. Can drones be far behind?

I share all this because, these days, people are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. This will have real impacts.

As my friend Luke C. pointed out the other day, it is entirely conceivable that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. It could also record and save remotely everything that is going on – in order to prevent anyone from harassing or bullying them. It might even remind them to look both ways before crossing the street, in case they forget. Or, because of its high vantage point, it could pick out and warn your child of cyclists and cars they failed to observe. Once your kid is safely at school the drone could whiz home and recharge in time to walk them home at the end of the day. This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents… that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ll want one for your elderly parents… just in case something happens to them? It’s be good to be able to pull them up on a live feed, from anywhere.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl, a digital pet? Or maybe all of these outcomes? I’m not sure the answer is obvious.

My larger point is that the pressure to create the surveillance society isn’t going to come exclusively from the state. Indeed, we may find ourselves in a surveillance society not because the state demands it, but because we want the tools for our own useful and/or selfish ends. Some people may argue that this may level the playing field between citizens and the state or powerful organizations. I hope that is true. But maybe the mass adoption of such tools will simply normalize surveillance in our society and culture. That might, in turn, make it easier for the state, or other organizations, or just everyone else, to monitor us.

What I do know is that our government, our police forces, our neighborhoods are wholly unprepared for this. That’s okay, they have some time. But it is coming. At some point we will be living in a society where the technology will exist to enable anyone to deploy a drone that can observe anyone else in a public space, and maybe even in a private space. The challenges and complexities for policy makers are significant, and the implications for our communities, probably even more so. Either way it’s going to make many people’s lives a lot more complicated.

Note, I suspect there are typos in this, but it is 2 am and wordpress already deleted the first draft of this post killing a couple hours of work… so my capacity and patience is low. I hope you’ll forgive me a little.