This is a very belated LiveBlog post from the CSCS Network Citizen Science and the Mass Media event, which I chaired back on 22nd October 2015. Since the event took place several videos recorded at the event have been published by the lovely CSCS Network folks and I’ve embedded those throughout this post.
About the Event
This session looked at how media and communications can be used to promote and engage communities in a crowd sourcing and citizen science project. This included aspects including understanding the purpose and audience for a project; gaining exposure from a project; communicating these types of projects effectively; engaging the press; expectation management; practical issues such as timing, use of interviewees and quotes, etc.
I was chairing this session, drawing on my experience working on the COBWEB project in particular, and I was delighted that we were able to bring in two guest speakers whose work I’ve been following for a while:
Dave Kilbey, University of Bristol and Founder and CEO of Natural Apptitude Ltd. Natural Apptitute works with academic and partner organisations to create mobile phone apps and websites for citizen science projects that have included NatureLocator, Leafwatch, Batmobile, and BeeMapp. Some of these projects have received substantial press interest, in particular Leafwatch (along with the wider Conker Tree Science initiative), and Dave will talk about his personal experience of the way that crowd sourcing and citizen science and the media work together, some of the benefits and risks of exposure, and some of the challenges associated with working with the press based on his own experience. @kilbey252
Alastair (Ally) Tibbitt, Senior Online Journalist at STV, where he has been based since 2011 working both in journalism and community engagement. Aly’s background lies in community projects in Glasgow and Edinburgh, experience that informs his work writing both for STV and Greener Leith. He has particular interests in hyperlocal news, open data and environmental issues, giving him a really interesting insiders’ perspective on the way that citizen science and crowd sourcing can engage the press, some of the realities of media expectations, timings, etc. and an insight into effective ways to pitch a citizen engagement story. @allytibbett
My notes from the talks were captured on the day but, due to chairing, I wasn’t able to capture all of the discussion or questions that arose in the session. The video below captures the talks, with my notes from these below.
Musings on Media and Communications for Citizen Science Projects – Dave Kilbey, Natural Appitude
I’m not an expert but I have been working in this area for some time so these are some musings informed by my work to date.
I’ve worked on a variety of projects, which started with a project called NatureLocator – all basically mobile apps, but also website. We try to make it as simple as possible for people to take part in these projects, and we try to do that working with experts so that the data we collect is useful and purposeful. So our projects include work on invasive species, work with the biological monitoring centre. So effectively we work with researchers, organisations, and engaging the public in what we do. And we do that with design of bespoke smartphone apps and websites. In theory Innovative but actually much of this is established – although BatMobile is an exception – as was never really good enough to launch. And public engagement is central to what we do, and from that naturally comes much of our engagement with media.
We spend a lot of time and money on design and usability, because if they aren’t easy to use and appealling then participants won’t use them or use them again. The apps are for contribution, the website is for looking at the data – that’s more of an unprovoked engagement…
So the content on media on communications is this bit, which I’m calling “Smurfs… and the wrong kind of conkers”.
So I thought about why we want media coverage in the first place? It’s obvious but it matters… And these are selfish through to altruistic…
We want this to get the project (and us) noticed – we want to share what we do, and to get the project out there (important for a business too). You want to engage an army of volunteers – you can’t have citizen science without citizen scientists, you need people engaged. You want to attract more funding – crucial in a university context. Success metrics – which include impact – we are measured on how many people took part, engaged etc. and as researchers we are also measured on media presence to an extent. But there is also the aspect of personal satisfaction, and that matters.
On a more altruistic basis is increase knowledge of a concept or problem – we’ve really had that feedback on our invasive plant species work. Citizen science is increasingly about finding solutions to problems – there are all sorts of things like examination of proteins being gamified, so participants contribute regardless of knowledge. We also want to inspire interest, perhaps even the next generation of researchers – we are all passionate about what we do, and want to share that…
But the crux of the matter is that media isn’t always as important in the ways you’d expect.
If your project isn’t ready, the media coverage will be a real pain. There is a project called Ash Town done more of less as a media stunt… The organisation using the data wasn’t ready, the data wasn’t ready… and they had a backlog of verification and that disillusioned participants… The feedback loop wasn’t there but they had to take advantage of that moment. So I tend to be quite conservative about when I share projects, I want them ready.
Quite a few of our projects have had mass media interest and that can be brilliant but they cause a big spike and are largely unfocused… Normally you want a focused set of interested participants. It can be helpful but long term it’s less clear how it is helpful for finding those participants. By contrast micro media and focused marketsing and events, such as conferences, lead to better engagement – and the data from targeted audiences tends to be much better. For example there was a big issue of giant hog weed in the media this summer – we had more records than ever before… but 80% of that data was incorrect. Normally the data in Plant Tracker is 90% accurate. That was due to lots of people finding out about giant hog weed and recording lots of false positive. NOt neccassarily a problem, but an issue for data centric projects.
So we find drip feeding/organic networking works best for us. But as they say “Any publicity is good publicity?”… Maybe…. Mostly we’ve had good coverage,
To use a fishing analogy I see the mass media as ground bating – causing a general feeding frenzy, but then you have to think about how you are baiting your hook to make use of this… So it’s all about how you follow up…
So, with our first app, Leaf Watch, we had loads of media coverage. This project was small scale before with maybe 500 records a year, without the photos or georeference. So we set up a smartphone app with that sort of data for verification interested… And we had 5000 records… But also a lot of noise… 3 bottom pictures, and worse… even a smurf!
So, how to attract publicity… Again, I’m no expert… Often it’s about finding an interesting story to tell that has relevance at this point in time – is there a hook to draw people in, trigger their imagination. For the Uni of Bristol it was often our Public Relations Office that often got us the gig. Me, on my own using my Twitter feed, is going to get the Times interested… So utilise your existing resources in your organisation, they have some great powerful contacts etc. to call on. And I have a colleague who does a good job of researching likely journalists and contacting them directly…
Really much of this feels random, but it’s about a lot of events coming together, and stuff in the outside world… Looking for those opportunities to tell your story to an audience that’s ready to listen… (And do get in touch).
Engaging the Media – Ally Tibbett, STV
I work at STV, and have a background in community projects and volunteering activities. I currently work at STV, also setting up a fledgling news site.
So I wanted to set the context of engaging with media… ANd I wanted to set the scene. Many newspapers are losing 10% circulation, broadcast TV are doing better, but still online transition. But most media company websites are booming – our STV pages collectively reach a few million people a day. So still a lot of reason to get word out there. And it’s worth planning that as you do your citizen science project. You need to think about where you will find the people you do want to engage with. More and more people get their news via social media. Many read news via mobile device. It’s getting more visual with vides, images, infographics. Big interactive graphics are great, but hard to scale to a phone so many media companies keep it simple..
So I’ve tried to set this up as a timeline… How you might engage the media… Before your project. When recruiting participants – who do you want to reach, is it a specific geography? Age greoup? demographic? that should influence both the scial media platfors and media companies you use. What is the benefit for participants? What is the long term goal. Is ther ean interesting back story – and what change will it bring about. And plan out a communication calendar – can you hook into, e.g. International Authors day. Editors are always looking for a new angle on events, or a local angle on a national news story. And even if that doesn’t fit your timing it can be helpful. The other thing to think about is what digital assets can you share/produce. A press release is nice, but a press release with bangs and whistle, with infographics or images etc. That is brilliant – helps journalists know why they should engage now. It’s about the infotainment, not just the data. And it could be as simple as a slideshow, or animated gifs, or data we could map. Thinking about citizen science projects I’ve already worked on, I thought of a project on happiness on different neighbourhoods – we persuaded them to share some data. If you do want help producing maps etc, then there are skilled journalists who can help. We’ll need a Shapefile. And we need that data to be open to support more open interactive stuff…
So, assuming you had a nice launch and a little publicity boost… How do you engage dring th eproject? Well citizen engagement can be more than just research – can they promote project fro you on social media. You need a #hashtga to generate social media buss and help you collate conversation. Can you give progress reports to journalists who covered the launch and those you hope will cover final results. And building that buzz from the outset, can mean there is a story, and help show th eimpact of your prokect. Also, thnk about things that cannot be shared – could be copyright or child protection etc. issues. And as you aggregate content around the hashtag and curate the best, remove anything with an issue. Tools like STorify let you do this.
From my point of view one of the best ways to engage the press is when there is a result, a discovery… The media thrives on a wee bit of controversy etc. So Neive Short from CRESH at Edinburgh looks at mapping alchohol etc. and social issues – she is a campaigning academic, taking her studies to policy makers, and that, for instance, is always of interest. So air quality or air pollution crowd sourcing project would certainly have some of those qualities, those cases to engage policy makers. Too often we get press releases about “we did a study… we might be able to do something in the future…” but we need a concrete story really…
A note on press releases… They are fundamentally quite useful. Do send them out. Keep them short. Include multiple short quotes. have a clear top line, be clear about what you’ve done. Comes with a variety of visuals in different formats – landscape, portrait, infographics, animated films etc. And supplying images in multiple formets – making our job to package it easier – makes a big difference. Is the story important enough for us to send someone out to take new images? Maybe not. BUt actually don’t send 6MBs of materials is not good – so send a press release linking to resources.
So, journalists. Do send releases etc to a generic news email addresses. Use tools like Twitter and LinkedIn to find journalists with an interest in your subject, message them direct. Provide advance warning, reminders, photo and filming opportunities. Don’t do it at the weekend – no TV will come. Do it at a lunchtime on a weekday… PRactical stuff. If no one shows up, don’t worry about it, do send them pictures etc. And if there is one place that you really really want to be featured in, offer it as an exclusive and see it works. Obviously I’d like that to be me… BUt that’s something useful to hold back ni that way…
And, lastly, humour works. If you can find something daft, and can present it in a funny way… Our story “What if Back to the Future was set in Glasgow” is the second most ready story on our website having gone up yesterday. Most read story in the last year on STV was a very tall man who using the bathroom had a hand dryer calamity – that did great and almost made the front page of Reddit. We can be too serious… Be fun. Share the 15 things that happened in this project that were most funny, say… Humour works.
And with that we turned to some really interesting questions and discussion – huge thanks to all who came along and took part in this.
Huge thanks to Dave and Ally for making the time to come along and speak to the CSCS network who I know really appreciated their presentations and sharing of experience. Huge thanks too to the lovely CSCS network team for providing a space for this event and support for our speakers and their travel.