University of Georgia

University of Georgia

Virtual Water Infrastructure Crisis

University of Georgia is one of the 2017 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 10 winners.


  • Bart Wojdynski, Assistant Professor, Journalism, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia; Director, Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab
  • Matt Binford, Graduate Student, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Keith Herndon, Professor of Practice, Journalism, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia; Director, Cox Institute
  • Jason Farkas, Vice President, Premium Content Video, CNN
  • Cathy Farr, Senior Product Director, Mobile Applications, CNN
  • Erica Hernandez, Visual/Multimedia Journalist, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Ken Foskett, Senior Editor for Investigations, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Ivanka Pjesicac, Assistant Professor, Journalism, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia
  • Mark Shavin, master’s student, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia; former senior executive producer at WSB-TV and WAGA-TV in Atlanta

View one of the team’s 360-degree documentaries, “Leaping Water,” here.

Describe your project as a tweet

We are going to examine whether immersive 360 video can be used to explain critical municipal water infrastructure to news consumers, and whether there are differences in consumers’ understanding and attitudes based on whether the videos are viewed on a computer screen or a VR headset.

What is your live news experiment?

Our project will test how immersive 360 video can raise community engagement around environmental news stories. The recent development of affordable 360-degree photographic equipment and free-to-use stitching software that puts together composite images, opens the door for online news organizations to revolutionize their photojournalism with easy-to-produce, immersive visuals that increase presence and a provide necessary visual context.

We will recruit 10 to 12 undergraduate students to be part of the project. For six weeks, students will attend weekly training sessions with CNN staff to get trained in shooting and stitching 360 video. Once they have finished their training, they will work with our content partner to create and pitch stories for a package about water infrastructure issues and threats in the North Georgia area. In the last five weeks of the fall semester, students will work on their stories, shoot footage and design an integrated online platform for displaying the footage within the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s digital products. Students also will capture images in real time and work with partners at the AJC on streamlining the image-posting process. For each story, we plan on also using Facebook’s live 360 video capabilities to post footage on the AJC’s Facebook page. (Further into the project, the time-sensitive nature of Facebook live reporting with 360 made less sense to our content partner and our students, so this was not pursued.)

In January and February, we will work on finalizing a permanent interactive online repository for the project and all of its videos. Once the project is done, we will conduct a research experiment with AJC consumers to gauge the effectiveness of the project on knowledge and engagement.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

If the experiment works, our project team will have succeeded on three fronts. First, we will have succeeded using new technology to cover a local issue in an immersive way. Second, we will have created a streamlined workflow and publication platform for posting 360-video-driven features on the Web that can be accessed by users regardless of device. Third, we hope that being able to view elements of North Georgia water infrastructure in 360-video format will lead consumers to feel more knowledgeable about water infrastructure and more personally affected by deterioration and policy related to it.

After the stories are published, we will conduct a research experiment evaluating the effectiveness of the videos on water infrastructure knowledge and civic engagement in water infrastructure improvement issues. Community members will be recruited to view the content in a naturalistic setting, either on a desktop or with a VR headset, and then answer questions about their experience and about the content. We will then compare the scores of participants who viewed content with and without 360 video to assess differences in knowledge, attitudes and engagement. If our predictions are correct, the immersive videos will increase all three outcomes.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Our project seeks to apply technology in an attempt to solve a long-standing problem in local news — that of engaging readers in subjects that are of civic consequence, but viewed as “dry” or technical. The case of water infrastructure in Georgia provides an excellent test example for us. A 2017 National Resource Defense Council report showed Georgia with the fifth-most drinking water violations in the nation, in part due to frequent violations of lead limits, and high levels of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in the water. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated $93 billion in infrastructure need over the next 20 years, much of which will have to be addressed at the county and municipal level, often through tax-based initiatives.

The challenge is getting residents to understand and care about these issues. While it would productive for citizens to get to view deteriorating water treatment plants and storage vessels in person, we believe that 360-video technology offers a scalable and immersive proxy that can be effective in conveying issues of capacity, close proximity to potential pollutants and deterioration that pose a threat to Georgia’s drinking water. At a time when news organizations are just beginning to see the potential of 360 video, we hope to put it to the test in allowing consumers to have a virtual look at some of the key issues threatening Georgia’s water infrastructure.

What technology platforms will you use?

The hardware that we plan to deploy to solve this problem is available off-the-shelf, and our industry partners believe that the Samsung GEAR toolkit is the best of the available products. In the past, the time and technical labor required to “stitch” images to create a seamless virtual environment was cost-prohibitive for many producers. The recent development of the Samsung Gear 360 Action Director has simplified this process and thus increased the accessibility of 360 video. In order to post the video, we intend to use one existing technology for live viewing (Facebook Live 360), and to determine, during the project, the best way to post recorded videos for permanent viewing, testing existing platforms (e.g. Embedly, Google VR View) and working with the content publisher to determine optimal integration into their website.

If it works, how might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

We hope that the project will yield insights that can strengthen our journalism program and help both of our media partners. The project will allow us to identify best practices for collaborative publishing with a community media partner, and a blueprint by which students can help address coverage gaps, particularly with regard to visual journalism, that exist in many local news organizations. We hope to take what our students and faculty learn from CNN about the use of 360 video, and the equipment procured for this project, and integrate it into our advanced photojournalism and capstone reporting classes. We also hope to provide the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with data and recommendations they can use to effectively integrate more immersive visual journalism into their local news coverage, and how to minimize technical barriers to their news audience’s use of such content.

The University of Georgia team provided an update on its project in a March 2018 report.

Update: What have you discovered?

Despite the high-quality training our students received, we were still surprised by some of the challenges involved in shooting and editing 360 video. Shooting challenges included stabilization, particularly for moving 360 shots. Editing challenges involved the difficulties of having to sequence and edit the video in the limited-functionality stitching software, then import it to more conventional video editing software without being able to make changes to the timeline (only superimpositions).