Sure, Ben Kreimer holds a bachelor’s degree from Nebraska’s journalist school. But he doesn’t see himself as a journalist.
“I call myself a journalism technologist,” Kreimer told me. “I’m interested in experimenting with technology to see how it can be used to tell stories.”
While analog-age journalists have long told meaningful stories by splicing together sentences into powerful prose, Kreimer talks of stitching together images and overlaying data to create visual stories that resonate.
He wants to take the latest digital tools of today and craft stories in ways we’ve never seen before. Those stories will leverage the unique capabilities of drones and sensors. Kreimer is the first fellow at the Buzzfeed Open Lab for Journalism, Technology and the Arts, which was announced Wednesday.
“The logic of this new lab is: screw it, let’s fly drones. Drones with lasers,” Buzzfeed’s Mat Honan and Jonah Peretti wrote in a post introducing the lab. “And more to the point: Let’s build drones with lasers and show everyone how to make them, too. We want to push the envelope. We want to get just on the edge of what’s possible, and what’s permissible.”
Since being chastised by the FAA in 2013 for using drones in a project at the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab, Kreimer has taken his work overseas. But now regulators around the world are moving to restrict drones as well. In October 2014, Kreimer used a drone to build a 3D model of the Dandora dump in Nairobi. He programmed his DJI Phantom to fly back and forth, taking a photo every two seconds. Shortly after Kenyan authorities banned the use of drones.
Kreimer will be based in San Francisco, home of the Buzzfeed lab. He’s not sure yet which countries he will be flying drones in.
Air pollution is one area that Kreimer envisions drones can help him tell important stories. He plans to create an open-sourced sensor package that anyone could use with a drone to monitor air pollution in a given area. Instead of a story that’s published once, drones could regularly fly and provide updates and awareness on pollution in a given area.
He’s also planning to build a prototype of a motorcycle helmet that includes sensors to monitor air pollution. He’s already discussed the project with the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. He imagines a swarm of motorcyclists going about their daily tasks while passively gathering location-based data on pollution. The data would automatically be overlaid onto a Google Map.
“The hope is by getting more people involved in gathering the data more people will be thinking about the air pollution. They’ll have an idea of what they’re actually breathing,” Kreimer said. He imagines high concentrations of pollutants being signaled on a map with the color red, and low concentrations in green.
“This blending of taking what’s real and then adding onto it in that 3D realm is really interesting,” Kreimer said. “That’s where there’s a lot of room for creative exploration in taking a real place and then building onto it, imaging and then building onto it to help tell a story with layers that don’t exist in reality.”