Drone journalism: ‘Now is the time to get playing’

At the DIS, which takes place from 20-22 March 2016 in Berlin, Germany (book here), Ben will speak about drone and sensor journalism, 360-degree video and what’s in it for magazine media. Here he tells Ulrike Langer more.

What is the idea behind the Buzzfeed Open Lab?

It’s a lab designed to bring in people from a broad range of backgrounds for one-year fellowships – artists, journalists, software developers, basically anybody who builds hardware or software tools. We’re there to explore new ways of telling stories through hardware and software and everything that we do will become open-sourced the moment that we’ve made it.

How big is the lab and what is your role there? 

We will be six people in total, right now there are five of us. The senior fellow and project manager will be there for two years, the rest of us for one year. A lot of my time is spent developing ideas and thinking about tools that could help tell stories in new ways and then trying to build the idea. That is often drone-based, showing the ways drones can be used in the context of storytelling and not just doing aerial video and photography. 

But right now I’m working with 360-degree video. There’s a lot of energy around producing VR content and immerse video, but there’s not much that’s been done about the sound component. That’s one of the areas I’m looking into, creating 360-degree sound. I’m figuring out how I should go about that. What tools do I need to assemble and what kind of microphone should I build?

What’s your background? How did get to where you are now?

My bachelor’s degree is in journalism but in the past couple of years I’ve mostly worked on drones, partly because there is so much enthusiasm around the technology. There have been a lot of opportunities for me to do field work using drones. But I’m also interested in building sensors to tell stories from places where people can’t go.

What are some examples of using sensors for storytelling?

Two years ago Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism funded a project based on an idea that I had. I built a sensor that was placed inside a suitcase to tell the story of a piece of luggage as it travelled. The device tracked what happened to your bag as it travelled from airport to airport to your final destination. So it was an experience in building a custom sensor, employing and telling a novel story that you really couldn’t tell any other way. 

Another early example is the story of the worst drought we’ve had in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 80 years. I was working with Matt Waite (head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab) on this idea. 

We were interested in hyper localised storytelling around the drought and so we had the idea to build a little sensor that goes into your yard and tells you the water content in your soil. Then it logs that data automatically online via a WiFi chip that was built into the sensor. The idea behind this was: there are drought sensors are all over the US but what if we brought them to people’s yards? This is an exploration into crowd-sourced sensing and hyper localised storytelling around these sensor devices. 

With long-term data gathering through sensors do you see storytelling potential for e.g. magazine media (that generally don’t focus on breaking news but rather on background and depth)?

These kind of stories are unique. We can track recycling, garbage or luggage. They are not obvious be-cause how would you tell such a story without this custom device or without having the idea to send this piece of technology into the field in such a manner? These stories are novel and lot of times also fun. They are slower stories. They are not breaking the news. They take time to develop and even once you have the device and put it out into the field it takes time to gather enough data to write a story. But if you have, whatever it is that you’ve built, out in the world long enough you can get different stories out of that same project. You just have to be patient. So, yes, there will definitely be possibilities for magazine media assuming that the time can be allotted waiting for the stories to happen. Because they will be surprising. 

What’s in it for Buzzfeed? What’s the company’s philosophy behind all the Lab? 

They see the value in innovative ideas, even ideas that don’t make money. Everything I do is open source. They see the value in the Lab contributing these ideas and tools into the world of journalism and being the name behind them. They want to be that company that has people come in with interesting ideas, executing them and then sharing them with the world. Given the fluid way that Buzzfeed is developing and increasingly embracing investigative reporting and journalism and not just social and entertainment content they want to get their foot in the door doing this type of work. And they can afford to do it so they do it.

What other ideas are you working on at the Open Lab?

The New York Times did a piece about how New Delhi has the world’s worst air pollution. It’s far worse than in Beijing. I spent a lot of time in India and one idea for a sensor project that I had was to take a motor cycle helmet and build a sensor into the helmet so that again you would have a crowd-sourced design. It wouldn’t change people’s daily routines. If you ride a motorcycle or a scooter you wear this and it gathers data on air pollution as you go about your daily business on the streets. So it would show individuals the kind of air that they are breathing. A lot of families travel on motorcycles. You can get an idea what you and your children are exposed to. You can gather data that now simply doesn’t exist be-cause in Delhi there are only about five air pollution monitors in the whole city. And they are not always all working. With this, you have a mobile sensor that travels with you. 

Is that the incentive for crowded data collection? Giving away the device with access to individual relevant data as long as there is an agreement to allow the enabler access and use the collective data?

Possibly. I am sure there are a lot of people in Delhi with respiratory issues. The Center for Science and Environment in Delhi is trying to raise awareness on this issue. They conducted a very small study and gave a commercial sensor to a handful of people in Delhi. These were five or six individuals with respiratory problems. They recognised the problems regarding air quality and so had an incentive. Their aim was simply finding out if they could plan their day and the places that they go around the air quality? The New York Times piece was about their own reporter who was living in Delhi with his family, with his wife and two young boys. The story was personal for him. They basically left India because his sons were developing serious respiratory problems and it was just too dangerous for them to be there.

Let’s get back to drones. Are there problems using drones? 

In the US, it’s kind of a mess. Here’s an extreme example to illustrate how frustrating the situation is. Hobbyists or basically anybody can fly a drone for fun. I myself can go to a park on a Saturday afternoon on my free time and fly a drone around for fun and shoot video and I can post that online and there is no issue. But if I go to the same park on Wednesday afternoon, shoot the same video and then publish it on Buzzfeed’s website I’m not supposed to do that based on the current FAA regulations. 

How does Buzzfeed get around that problem?

Well, we haven’t published any drone video yet. 

Why do they have you working on drones then? 

The focus of our work in the Open Lab is to develop tools that journalists can use. It’s not on producing content. So that means that I can develop ideas and build things, but the main focus is on the tool and that way of using the drone.

But then later the journalists supposed to be using these tools will run into the same legal problems?

That’s right – if they’re operating in the US But there are ways around this regulatory situation. There are a handful of individuals in the US now, and their number is quickly growing, who have a so-called 333 exemption which allows them to fly drones and do commercial work. That’s how CNN has been doing drone work in the US. They hire drone operators who have the proper documents and permissions to fly drones in the US. And then it’s no issue. So it’s not a complete blackout. So the situation in the US is difficult but you can get around it and it’s slowly opening up.

Is that different in other countries you have worked in?

In India and Kenya, both countries currently have complete citizen bans on drones and nobody is allowed to fly unless you are part of a government. But on a citizen level, here in the US and around the world,  the market for drones and drone use is in the billions of dollars. It’s slated to be a huge market, especially once things open up. People in these other countries realise that. I’ve met with drone manufacturers in India. They have the same ideas that people in the US have. They have so many different applications for drones in so many fields: agriculture, construction, infrastructure, management and monitoring. 

So it’s really just the governments interpreting the situation in different ways or banning usage outright in certain countries. In most European countries, it’s a lot easier to do commercial drone work now. That’s the range of drone regulation at the government and regulatory level but at the citizen level people are jumping at the opportunity to get involved and make money. 

Drone journalism is still in a very early stage, but where do you see it heading in the future?

When it comes to drones and media, there is huge potential, whether it’s in the context of advertising, investigative journalism or breaking news. Drones will without a doubt replace news helicopters. There is simply no reason to have a news helicopter when you can have a drone which can do the same thing at a far lower cost. In the US and in some countries that have outright banned drones it’s hard to work with drones at the moment but the technology is available and it’s not going away. 

What is your advice for media companies? 

Right now is the opportunity to get started. Even if it’s at the lowest level: just buying a low-cost drone and thinking about ways to use it. Now’s the time to get ahead of others who are waiting for things to open up first. Even though in many cases you can’t just buy a drone and then immediately have a reporter go out and use it. In the US you have to follow certain procedures, including finding someone with a permission to operate the drone, but that’s going to change. 

When the US releases its finalised drone regulations you will not have to have a pilot’s license. It might take a couple of years, but that’s one of the first things that will go. And once the US opens up then other countries will most likely follow suit. So basically now is the time to get started to be on the cutting edge despite the difficulties. You’re not going to be able to make a lot of money off it right now but eventually the opportunities will be there. So why wait when you can at least start thinking about it and get’s exposed to what’s possible. 

* The Digital Innovators’ Summit takes place from 20-22 March 2016. Book now to take advantage of the pre-agenda, discounted offer (saving at least €800 on final delegate rates) – ending soon. 

Ben Kreimer is a journalism technologist and the first fellow with BuzzFeed’s new Open Lab fellowship in San Francisco. He’s also an advisor for the Drone Journalism Lab and Kenya based African skyCAM. Kreimer explores the use of drones and microcomputer sensor platforms as new tools for gathering data and telling stories. His drone work focuses on exposing and telling stories in new ways through the unique perspectives and visual experiences made possible with drones.

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