University of Maryland

University of Maryland

Frozen Out: A Community Data Journalism Project

The University of Maryland is one of the 2018 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all nine winners.


  • Sean Mussenden, Data Editor and Director, Capital News Service
  • Adam Marton, Data Editor, Capital News Service
  • Krishnan Vasudevan, Assistant Professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
  • Brooke Auxier, PhD student, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
  • Susan Malone, Executive Director, Wide Angle Youth Media
  • Marty Kaiser, Former Editor, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; Howard Fellow, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
  • Sandy Banisky, Former Deputy Managing Editor, Baltimore Sun; Faculty Member, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
  • John Fairhall, Former Editor, Kaiser Health News
  • Bob Little, Investigations Team, NPR; Adjunct Faculty Member, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
  • Youth Producers, Wide Angle Youth Media
  • Students, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
  • Reporters, Capital News Service

Describe your project

The Baltimore Climate and Health Project is a test model for “community data journalism,” where high school, college and professional journalists and academics work with renters in low-income housing communities in Baltimore and Prince George’s County to construct and deploy temperature sensors in their apartments to look for violations of city and county rental laws that require landlords to keep rental properties above a certain temperature in the winter. We hope to determine whether involving residents in the technology creation and deployment process leads to greater levels of engagement in the target communities with journalism the project produces.

What is your experiment?

We plan to host community forums to identify renters in low-income housing communities who live in units where they don’t have control over the thermostat. We will also work through Wide Angle Youth Media, community housing groups, tenant rights organizations and an original analysis of 311 call data to identify renters.

We will hold hands-on workshops where we will teach residents to construct simple temperature-monitoring modules, which will log minute-by-minute temperature data to SD cards. We will also hold workshops where we provide residents with contextual information about the relationship between temperature and health, city and county housing laws and help them connect with other users in disparate communities who have similar problems with heat. We plan to build and manage a Facebook group to supplement in-person workshops.

Once the sensors are constructed, we will arrange to have them placed in volunteer homes to collect data over a three-month period. We will ask volunteers to keep a journal and take photos and video during that period, and share it to the Facebook group. Journalists from Capital News Service and Wide Angle Youth Media will also do reporting during this period, and analyze the data when the collection period ends, looking for deviations from housing law levels. Capital News Service and Wide Angle Youth Media journalists will produce original works of journalism based on data analysis, follow-up reporting and first-person resident observations. We will also produce how-to guides for other news organizations who wish to build on our work.

2019 update: Originally, we hoped to host workshops to construct the temperature sensors in Fall 2018, but we had to move them to January 2019. This move occurred because of a delay in acquiring the parts needed to build the temperature sensors, and working out schedules with community partners. In order to avoid further delay in deploying the sensors in the field, our team pre-built some parts of the more complex components of the sensors before final construction could be completed by community partners. Other than that change, our project is on track.

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

There are a couple outcomes that would be indicative of success. Social and legal outcomes could include a change in city policy or greater enforcement of established codes. If landlords were held to greater accountability for existing heating laws, this in turn would lead to improved health outcomes and quality of life for lower-income residents and renters. From an academic perspective, we hope to establish a model for conducting this sort of community journalism in the future.

We aim to establish ethical guidelines and a replicable process. This includes helping students better understand the power of community-driven journalism by including them in the process of research and reporting. Our hope is to include the community we are researching / reporting on in every step of this process. If we are able to give people a better sense of ownership in their community, we would also consider the experiment a success.

2019 update: By the end of Fall 2018, we indicated we would conduct background reporting and supplementary, contextual data analysis in support of the project; work on recruiting volunteers to help us build and host temperature sensors; and host workshops to explain the project and build sensors. We completed those milestones, but we expect to continue hosting additional workshops and recruit additional participants in the coming months. We are now in the Winter 2019 stage of the project. We have begun on-the-ground reporting in Baltimore, and continue to do contextual background reporting. We are in the process of working with community partners to deploy sensors in Baltimore homes in target neighborhoods.

How is this project unique and innovative?

This project is innovative in a few ways. We seek to deploy low-cost temperature sensors in the homes of citizens living in low-income communities in Baltimore and Prince George’s County to understand if landlords are properly heating their buildings per the law. While sensor journalism is not novel, our approach is informed by the community’s surveillance concerns.

In our initial conversations with community partners about this project, citizens have raised privacy concerns about being monitored. We see this as an opportunity to experiment with an ethnographic, community-based approach to sensor journalism, in which journalists and public housing residents design the sensors together. We also see this as an opportunity to help reframe members of low-income communities as citizen journalists, and to help professional journalists understand and address concerns about surveillance in public housing and landlord retribution.

We hope that this level of transparency will not only facilitate trust between public housing residents and journalists, but will also meaningfully engage citizens as partners in the journalism process. By incorporating citizens in the reporting process and development of a technology, we believe this project presents an innovative approach that can be modeled in cities like Baltimore across the country. Moreover, as local news organizations struggle to survive, their capacity to do cutting edge, investigative journalism is limited. Our model, looks within the community in partnership with local university partners, to tell important stories and thus presents an innovative way to overcome the lack of local, investigating reporting in poor communities.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

We hope this project will inform our journalism education in a few ways. First, we hope this project will help us better understand how to teach journalism less as a top-down form of storytelling and rather as a way to tell stories and engage from within communities. Through community journalism courses, we hope students will have a chance to rethink and reimagine journalism as a potentially more empathetic, citizen-focused enterprise. Finally, we hope this project will also allow us to craft curriculum around sensor journalism and project-based learning.