Doing something about discouraging data

I blogged earlier about some discouraging data on the involvement of women in professional CS. I also bemoaned the eye roll-inducing culture of computer geeks that I encountered at university. And I wondered (offline) about how and why the tiny minority of women programmers was holding up.

A few months later,  I’m thinking very seriously about joining their ranks.

What got me thinking this way?

Meeting, learning from, and learning with a ton of cool female developers, courtesy of Girl Develop It Boulder. Through GDI workshops I’ve re-discovering the fact that I love creating things with code. I love it so much that I can get lost in it for hours without noticing the time.

Don’t get me wrong; working in communications has been fun and challenging in its own ways. I’m deeply grateful to have picked up a lot of experience in project planning and people management. But I’ve been feeling for months that it’s high time to put those very deliberately earn “soft” skills to use on more complex technical and social challenges with a dedicated team. I’ve spent my entire career at academic/nonprofit/government institutions with old-fashioned management – it’s time to leap into the modern business world and find a place that adequately exploits my combination of technical savvy and immersion in people, culture and connection.

Fortunately, living in the heart of the Boulder tech community, I don’t have to leap too far (at least not in a geographic sense).

At this point, I’ve taken classes in HTML5/CSS3, Javascript, Git, Python and UNIX  server management, and I’m about to start a comprehensive bootcamp in web development. I’ll use what I learn to rebuild and streamlined this site. This WordPress theme has served me well for a long time, but it is time to move on and up!

The science of science communication, summarized

No, do not do a Google image search for "scientist" if you do not want to be depressed and outraged.
Is this what scientists think of “the public”? Stock Photo from Getty via jacks of science.
I’ve identified as a scientist for most of my life, despite leaving at the end of my master’s to pursue a career in science communication. The biggest challenge for me in that career shift – next to learning to meet a zillion little deadlines every day in lieu of huge ones once every few years – was learning to be present and relatable.

By default I am the classic cerebral, shy, white-coat nerd type. I’m still constantly fighting my own tendencies to live inside my own head and spew evidence faster than others can process it – tendencies that the culture of academic science enhanced in me, even socialized into me and my former science colleagues. I think I’ve finally managed to internalize the notion that I’m not just trying to reach “the public” with science; in fact I am part of “the public.”

The point is, sometimes scientists need to be reminded of their own humanity. And who better to do that than humanities scholars?

There’s a whole issue of PNAS out dedicated to the science of science communication, based on a meeting of the same name that I at one point was dying to attend. It turns out many of the sessions were recorded and you can still view them online at the meeting website. Or you can go to the 2013 meeting!

I doubt I will make it to the 2013 meeting. But I have the videos and the special issue of PNAS to relish. One piece from the special issue, Communicating science in social settings, includes a summary and discussion of assumptions scientists often make about “the public” and “the media” that, based on lots of social science studies and extensive survey data, deserve further scrutiny. Here are my takeaways from that section:

  • 1. More information is not better.
    Resist the urge to summarize your entire body of scientific knowledge in one conversation. Make one point. Make it quickly and make it well.
  • 2. The public still trusts scientific institutions.
    There goes that excuse.
  • 3. Stories are much more powerful than lectures.
    How well do you remember the last three movies you saw? How well do you remember the last three two-hour lectures you saw?
  • 4. No one totally ignores his own worldview when interpreting scientific information.
    That includes scientists.
  • #ESA2013 Ignite: Open Science

    I had sooooo much fun organizing my first Ignite talk session. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I met several excellent people and learned a lot about data, R and collaboration tools. I am also super proud of how awesome my speakers and moderator are, and how thoughtful and stimulating the discussion was.

    So I’m sharing it all like a proud session mama. Here are the session details from the program and, when available, the talks themselves:

    Sharing Makes Science Better

    Organizer: @sandramchung | Moderator: @jacquelyngill

    Scientists too often labor alone. The need to closely guard ideas during the race to immortalize them in professional publications can make the practice of science crushingly lonely and ill-informed by tools and knowledge that could make science easier and better. Occasional scientific meetings are often the only opportunities to share ongoing work and connect with colleagues outside of one’s immediate working environment. But there’s a fertile online science ecosystem of innovation, collaboration and mutual support that carries on all year round, and its lifeblood is a network of scientists and science lovers who openly share tools, data, knowledge and ideas that help all researchers to do stronger, better, faster science. The rapidly growing open source and online science communities suggest a new model of doing science in which we build our work on tools, data, knowledge and ideas that are freely offered and contribute our own in return. This session features several free and open-source tools that ecologists have created specifically to help fellow researchers do the work of ecological science, as well some other tools we didn’t create but have tried and found enormously useful. We encourage our colleagues to try them, improve upon them, and perhaps most importantly, share what they’ve learned so that others can benefit as they have.

    IGN 2-1

    Big Data in Ecology

    | @ethanwhite, Biology, Utah State University, Logan, UT

  • Slides and text
  • Increasingly large amounts of ecological and environmental data are available for analysis. Using existing data can save time and money, allow us to address otherwise intractable problems, and provide general answers to ecological questions. I will discuss why we should be actively using this data in ecology, how to get started, and give examples of what can be accomplished if we embrace an era of big data in ecology.

    IGN 2-2

    EcoData Retriever – automates the tasks of fetching, cleaning up, and storing available data sets

    | @bendmorris, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

    Ecology often relies on data that has already been collected, and an ever-increasing amount of biological and environmental data is now available online. However, it can be difficult and time consuming to compile synthetic datasets from data files stored in various online repositories or research web sites. The EcoData Retriever is a community-centered tool that automates discovering, cleaning up, and organizing ecological data into the format of your choice. I’ll speak about problems solved by the Retriever and touch on future directions aimed at further utilizing community effort and the web to automate ecological data access.

    IGN 2-6

    R-based tools for open and collaborative science

    | @recology_ (Scott A. Chamberlain), Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology MS 170, Rice University, Houston, TX

    Open science is the practice of making the elements of scientific research – methods, data, code, software, results, and publications – readily accessible to anyone. While this has great potential for advancing research, the absence of an open science toolkit prevents open science from being more widespread. We are building bridges between data (e.g, Dryad) and literature (e.g., PLoS journals) repositories and the open source R software, a programming environment already familiar to many ecologists. These bridges facilitate open science by bringing together data acquisition, manipulation, analysis, visualization, and communication into one open source, open science toolkit.

    IGN 2-7

    Social media for scientific collaboration

    | @sandramchung, NEON Inc.

    Sharing Makes Science Better: Social Media for Ecologists from Sandra M Chung on Vimeo.

    Scientific research is about the nurturing of knowledge and ideas. And to knowledge- and idea-lovers, the Internet is a door to an infinite candy store. Social media provide a means to quickly access exactly the online knowledge you want – by filtering the grand store of information through interaction with the people, topics and communities that matter to you. I wouldn’t stop at just knowledge consumption, however. Sharing your science online can connect you with mentors and collaborators, sharpen and deepen your science, hone your communication and teaching skills, and even earn you funding.

    IGN 2-9

    The power of preprints: the open publication project for ecologists

    | @cjlortie, Biology, York University, Toronto, Canada

    Ideas are free but not cheap. Peer-reviewed publications are still the major form of accepted dissemination of ecological ideas. Even with open access however, this communication modality is outdated. Discussion, feedback, transparent review, versioning, ranking, and articulation of both idea development and peer-review are needed to accelerate scientific discovery. A new communication venue is proposed herein: archival of open access pre-prints similar to arXiv but with annotation, review, and discussion. Think stackoverflow + arXiv for ecologists; not a final step in the evolution of scientific communication but an affordable idea we need to explore.

    Add your Twitter username to your conference badge


    A Twitter sticker in action
    A Twitter sticker in action

    I designed these Twitter stickers in July 2012 to hand out at the ESA meeting in Portland during and after the social media workshop I ran with Jacquelyn Gill. They’re getting more and more popular (as of ESA 2013, I’ve handed out nearly all of the original 300 I printed) so I thought I’d share the artwork and information on how to order them.

    I used Sticker Mule to order custom 3.5″x.75″ rounded corner stickers that fit nicely below your name on your scientific conference badge (right).

    ADDENDUM 2013.08.12
    Feel free to re-use, modify and share the design. But please do not sell the stickers. They are for only personal and academic use.

    MOOCs are not the end of education; they are a game changer

    Some teachers are brilliant and talented coaches and mentors. But there’s still way too much focus on information delivery in higher education that just doesn’t make sense in an era when so much information is already freely available. The Powerpoint lecture generation is long overdue to move on and acquire different skills, and MOOCs are an important disruptive innovation that I hope will hammer that point home.

    Many traditional professors could easily be replaced by a recording, a la Real Genius. As the author points out, MOOCs are good for information delivery, and many professors do little or no more than deliver information – the “real” learning happens in the problem sets and the projects and essay drafts, in the performance, feedback, revision cycle, which many universities and professors relegate to lowly paid graduate or even senior undergraduate students and to which they devote token attention.

    MOOCs, then, are cost-effective substitutes for lecturers. Why pay someone every year to deliver the same lecture to a limited-capacity room when you can simply pay the same person once to record the lecture and distribute it to a zillion more paying students almost anywhere in the world?

    With the cost of higher education rising as rapidly as it has as of late, students and parents are demanding more value in the education services provided by universities and college. Many educators are going to have to change the way they teach to demonstrate their relevance and value in the rapidly changing education marketplace, just like folks trained decades ago in other professions are now facing the need to retrain and modernize their skills to stay gainfully employed.

    In the Internet era, when information is so cheap and easy to get, many teachers still maintain an antiquated focus on information delivery. Think of information like open source software. The raw materials are free, but you need a lot of training or practice or both to get them to work for you. So teaching with the Internet ought to be more like delivering a value-added service for free and abundant information resources.

    I, like many others, would expect education to shift away from information delivery and more toward coaching students in finding, evaluating, using and generating information.

    Is the attrition rate for online courses appallingly high? Yes. But that’s not the point. If you take the savings you reap from not having to pay the lecturer to deliver the same lecture every semester and invest it in a rich layer of coaching and mentorship on top of that online course, you might find that that course does more of what we in the real world need and expect it to do: prepare students for a world where information is cheap, and judgment, creative insight, analytical and collaborative skills are the real prizes.

    How to make non-scientists hate scientists and ignore science

    Inspired by Brendan Leonard’s “How to Get Your New Boyfriend/Girlfriend to Hate Your Sport”.

    1. Place all the blame for everyone else’s inability to understand or appreciate your work on inadequate science education. You shouldn’t have to change the way you communicate with people of different academic background from you. No one is going to understand or appreciate what you do until they know as much about it as you do, and people who don’t know as much about your science as you do should go back to school and learn it.

    2. If you are forced to explain your science to a non-scientist, explain it in the most condescending tone possible to make sure the person understands that a) s/he is stupid and b) s/he is wasting your time. People who want to ask you questions about your work should read every paper you’ve ever written before they talk to you so they can ask you more intelligent questions.

    3. Socialize only with other scientists. If you somehow find yourself at a mixed party, ignore the non-scientists and talk with only the scientists. Remember, any social situation where you’re not talking about research with another researcher is a waste of your time and intellect.

    4. You know the business staff, office managers, administrative assistants, project managers, IT? All those people who do all the trivial tasks that are a waste of your time and scientific talent? Don’t talk to them except to complain about something that’s pissing you off. Always demand that they drop everything else and fix it right away so you can get back to your science without delay. Your science is more important than anything else they could possibly be doing.

    5. All those people who aren’t doing what the (your) studies recommend? Point out that their belief and values systems are total bullshit and that they should stop being stupid and get with the objective evidence. Science is truth*.

    6. Dismiss any sort of story or presentation about science that is not as dense, dry and technical as a graduate school seminar as “dumbed down”. Because you know, only dumb people like that simplistic popular science crap.

    * Except when it’s tainted by faulty methodology, unconscious bias and deliberate data manipulation.

    We are the seeders of collaboration clouds

    This is a ScienceOnline-inspired ditty, written with the other sciosatellite leaders and Bora, Karyn and Anton in mind:

    We nudge the primordial specks of the universe,
    Atoms upon atoms
    Closer, closer
    Till gravity seizes them, draws them into intimate quarters,
    And together, they birth bright stars and galaxies.

    We fine-tune the sequence of amino acids and the acidity and hyrophilicity of their environment
    Till the first protein self-assembles, a thing of great beauty and complexity.

    We share the code.

    Open-source life evolves and grows far beyond even what we imagined,
    Staring at atoms and molecules
    Dreaming of great things they might do together.

    We induce microbes to express a glue that binds them together,
    To form hardy biofilms where they help each other thrive.

    We tinker, hypothesize, develop models for conditions that cause
    Different species to assemble and thrive and endure together in a
    Grand ecosystem.

    We are the seeders of collaboration clouds.
    We are the engineers and the ecologists
    Of community.

    Managing social media accounts for public or private organizations. Part I: Must Know

    I promised the attendees of my ESA 2012 Portland workshop that I’d address social media management on behalf of institutions/organizations. Here it is. This is version 1.0, so please comment if you have anything to add or if you think I’ve goofed!

    A bit of background: I currently manage the social media accounts at NEON Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is overseeing the design and construction of a large, long-term ecological monitoring project. NEON Inc. is relatively new and also new to social media, so I’ve had a large role in developing the organization’s social media strategy and feeds from the ground up. I started doing social media in earnest as an intern at a large national lab, which had a well-established Facebook Page but not much in the way of a Twitter following.

    Some things you must know if you are handling social media for a private or public organization:

    1. Your organization’s social media policy

    Find out if your institution has an existing social media or nondisclosure policy. Read it very carefully. You may need to change it. If it doesn’t exist, get started on developing one. To get started, check this database of social media policies for several examples from organizations that are similar to yours and/or have documented successful social media campaigns.

    2. How to mind intellectual property, fair use law, and Creative Commons and GNU licenses

    Many people think nothing of republishing a photo, video, sound file or graphic they find on the Internet without asking permission or crediting the source. Lots of individuals get away with violating copyright law everyday, but large organizations are more likely to get sued for it, particularly if they are for-profit. It is also just plain bad karma to use someone else’s work without their permission. You absolutely need to know about intellectual property and how to respect it.

    Stanford University Libraries has a great site that explains copyright law both clearly and in detail, with example cases from the Internet and the music industry. At the bare minimum, please make sure you understand and remember everything in these two short sections:
    Copyright Basics FAQ
    Websites: Five Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

    Disclaimer: I am not legally trained or an intellectual property expert. This is far from a comprehensive set of guidelines, just some starter information to make you aware of the basics of this very important issue.

    I recommend that you be able to tell how a creative work is licensed, know how to hunt down originals and how to properly attribute any creative content to its original source. At minimum, state the author’s name and the source. Because we’re on the Internet, you should also link to the author’s website or web profile and to the original source where space allows.

    3. Your goals

    As an institutional social media manager it is extra important to establish clear goals for your organization’s social media account(s). Develop these with input from supervisors and managerial staff and make sure you all agree to them on paper. Clear goals will help you focus in curating and composing content for your feed. They will help you develop metrics to measure your progress (below). And if you later publish something that someone objects to, you can point out how it addresses the goals you all agreed upon and had engraved on the back of your iPad.

    4. How you’re doing

    Data are especially important if you’re trying to convince others of the value of social media outreach. Some tools and ways to track how you’re doing:

  • If you are server savvy, consider installing the open source Thinkup platform, which archives tweets and Facebook posts and visualizes basic metrics like followers, retweets, mentions, as well as tweet locations.
  • I hear Twitonomy does a lot of useful stats tracking, but I haven’t tried it yet.
  • Maintain Twitter lists of your target audience groups.
  • Use link shorteners like that help you track clicks on your links.
  • Use Google Analytics (or Jetpack Stats if you have a WordPress blog) to sort out website hits that come from tweets.
  • Visualizations are always a hit when it’s time for a review. In addition to the visualizations automatically generated by some of the apps above, my favorite visualization tools are:

  • Tweepsmap
  • Tweetstats
  • Next, in Part II: The “I” in “we”: how to tweet as an institution.

    How do you respond to the charge that something is “dumbed down”?

    As a science communicator and ex-science teacher, the most common criticism I hear from academic scientists about my work is that it’s “dumbed down.” I just read the same phrase in this fascinating but infuriating account in PLoS ONE of the results of a survey of biologists and physicists about science outreach. I had such a knee-jerk rage reaction that I needed to stop and consider why I hate it so much. It strikes me as condescending and elitist. Scientists who consider communication to non-science audiences “dumbed down” imply that non-scientists don’t understand science jargon because they are stupid. This is kind of the same feeling I get watching Americans yell baby talk to anyone who looks foreign or speaks with an accent. They’re not stupid or deaf. They just don’t speak your language. And that goes for other scientists who aren’t specialists in your exact field of study. How many physicists understand what I’m talking about when I’m saying this new protein is a toll-like receptor?

    Fellow science communicators, how do you respond when a scientist comments that a popular science piece is “dumbed down”? Do you have a handy phrase or two to substitute?

    UPDATE: replies from the Twitterverse

    Yet another blog post about talking about climate

    But this one leads to a chain of interesting pieces by some of my favorite authors about how to make a tired, important topic interesting again.

    Bob Krulwich writes:

    Global warming is important, yes; controversial, certainly; complicated (OK by me); but somehow, even broaching this subject makes me feel like someone’s put heavy stones in my head. Why is that?

    He attempts to answer his question by citing someone else’s answer (Ursula Goodenough’s). But her answer is actually a non-answer that hints at an answer by citing Jonathan Franzen’s recent NYT op-ed about his journey away from, and back to, environmentalism.

    You can start with Bob and work backward,

    go straight to Dr. Goodenough’s survey of climate change skeptics,

    or wade into Jonathan Franzen’s philosophical narrative on Crackberries, birds and love.