AstroInformatics II: From public outreach to public engagement
Outreach and education are two areas that stand to gain from developments in semantic astronomy and an increased scientific presence on the web. Big changes have already taken place, driven by a community eager to connect and communicate about the research we do every day. As part of a panel at the AstroInformatics 2010 conference last week, I gave a talk on aspects of science communication and education that are benefiting from the semantic web.

The internet these days is a cacophony of conversations, opinions, visual information (and porn). Many scientists and science enthusiasts write about the stuff that inspires or excites them in blogs, like I do here, which allow them to connect to people they would never have encountered, let alone talked with, in real life. This has led to some great scientific content generated entirely by the science community itself, without intermediate brokerage by communication or media professionals. But in this symphony of chaos, how do we increase the signal to noise? How do we ensure that the best content is heard?

A number of initiatives have emerged to collate “good” scientific content, and in my talk I highlighted a number of them. Researchblogging, which I subscribe to and have talked about before, is a service that aggregates online content from blogs about peer-reviewed scientific research, and categorises it in subjects.I think this is a great project for two reasons: for scientists themselves it’s very interesting to see what colleagues outside of our immediate realms are saying about new research – like an online journal club; second, for science enthusiasts the site is a place to read about new work, often in a more critical way than is reported in the media, with links back to the original publication. In similar fashion, The Guardian have recently introduced a new method of science reporting called Story Tracker, where a science story is augmented with additional content submitted to the paper with the aim of giving a balanced picture of what people are saying about the research, rather than just PR companies.

While Story Tracker still relies heavily on human curation of information, ResearchBlogging makes use of tagging and links (=semantics) to gather and organise content. But given the terse relations between the “mainstream” and “new” media, The Guardian’s willingness to experiment with new models of reporting is great, and I’m interested in seeing how the experiment evolves.

But how much of these dialogues actually reach broader audiences than traditional science communication methods? How many people have developed a passion for astronomy from reading blogs, or seeing photos on Flickr? Gordon Squires of IPAC spoke about “futility tweets”, and the difficulties in reaching a truly large audience. He suggests we get celebrities to help promote our message (as IPAC did). That’s certainly a good point, but what about those of us who don’t work in Los Angeles? Every community has its celebrities, he reckons, and we need to get them on board.

Citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo have been immensely successful in generating an active discussion and pulling in crowds to help with scientific research. A survey of zooites showed that many of them are motivated simply by the desire to contribute to scientific research. The success of Galaxy Zoo alone is entirely based on the principle of open access to data from astronomical surveys, and the project has spawned a whole new organisation, Zooniverse, to continue tapping the power of a crowd for the benefit of science.

In an article published in the Journal of Science Communication earlier this year, legal scholar Victoria Stodden examines the policy framework required to safeguard this access to science by citizens, and taking it further, how to enable a progression from scientist-led citizen science to citizen-led science. With both the data and the software readily available for download, what is required to empower ordinary citizens to go and explore for themselves?

“Access” was the theme for Gus Muench’s talk [pdf] in the session – not just access to data, but also access to people.This is where efforts like the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast series, or the Pub Astronomy videos, come in. They are about astronomers and astronomy lovers giving up their time to talk about what fascinates them, and about why they do what they do every day. That too is important in engaging with the public.

One of my final slides was a plug for the .Astronomy workshops, of which we’ve now had two instalments – Cardiff 2008 and Leiden 2009. At least for me, .Astronomy was about bringing together people who are active in any kind of astronomy-related project that uses the new opportunities offered by the social or semantic web. After the first workshop it seemed apparent that many people had projects or ideas going on, some as part of their daily jobs, others simply as hobbies. With the workshops, we wanted to create a community and foster collaborations between these folks, to really exploit these new technologies to the full. While many of the projects are small in scale, they may well be building blocks for bigger things to come.

The web is enabling us to move from “public outreach” to “public engagement”; from a one way street, a cul de sac even, to two-way traffic. There is much to be gained from this for all involved. Public engagement, Simon Jenkins, is not about asking for more money. It’s about exploiting to the full the new and exciting directions our technological society is naturally evolving in to push the boundaries of knowledge about life and the world we live in.


Victoria Stodden (2010). Open science: policy implications for the evolving phenomenon of user-led scientific innovation JCOM, 9 (1)

The video + slides of the entire session is here.


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