Big data equals big communication

Thu, Mar 17 2016

Scientists love big data. The big numbers, the big ideas, the big complex equations and the way out of all that noise comes the clarity of big picture research, like a television set slowly being tuned in.

But all that big data can be terrifying for people who are not scientists and who left school a decade ago and were never that much good at mathematics anyway.

So often in science, big data leads to a big disconnect with the general public.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Science communicators are at last coming to the understanding that data couched in the right format can be incredibly engaging and useful.

For instance, a researcher I worked with developed a complex new mathematical ocean model that could be used to detect how things move around the ocean. The output of that model is reams and reams of numbers.

But he had an interest in plastic pollution and how garbage moved around our seas and into the five great garbage patches. So, he put together a website, Adrift, based on his ocean model that would allow anyone to click on an area in the ocean and find out where something would drift for the next 10 years or where something may have drifted from.

It is a simple website that gets hammered whenever a message in a bottle washes up on shore, another piece of aircraft debris is found or even when a castaway lost at sea comes ashore on a small island. It has taken the complex data and equations and made it accessible in a way that is both practical and simple. And the website has directly helped that researcher become recognised as a world expert on ocean drift.

Another researcher in my centre has developed a website, Scorcher, that tracks heatwaves across Australia and shows more than a century's worth of data in simple graphs and interactive maps. She is now rightfully regarded as a world leader in heatwaves.

In 2014, as a plenary speaker at the annual conference of the Environmental Institute of Australia and New Zealand, I came across a researcher who had available large amounts of real time data for tracking whales. At that point in time, he hadn't even considered how this could be used as an interactive website.

What was even more surprising, was that he didn't realise the media goldmine he was sitting on in being able to follow whales along our coastlines. My understanding is that a website and app tracking these whales may soon become available. Importantly it works both ways. New data received from the public as observations can and does inform research. Smart comms around big data builds this bridge creating useful interactions between researchers and the public.

More recently I held a communication workshop with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. Not surprisingly, they have an extraordinary amount of interesting data around language.

Earlier this year the Centre had a great run in the media when an educational outreach program they ran gained notoriety because it showed how you could determine where someone came from in Australia simply by the words they used. This resulted in a wonderful word map and led to deeply engaged public discussions. 

Often scientists tend to keep their data just for their own use but, as just these few examples show, there is a world of great communication that can come from it.

The key for those working in science communication is to spend time with researchers to find out exactly what the data reveals and then look at how this can be presented in an engaging way that strikes up conversation.

It can be tough ask to get to this point and science communicators need to be fearless in the face of big data. They need to be prepared to ask a seeming litany of stupid questions (my wife reckons that comes naturally to me) to find out what the language of numbers can tell us all.

So often behind the complexity of numbers there is something simple, elegant and delightful that will be communications gold for a large audience. It’s our job as science communicators to mine for that gold.

The growth of science communicators in Australia.
As an addendum to this piece, it is worth noting that science communicators are growing in number and importance in Australia.

The main body for science communicators in the country, Australian Science Communicators, has more than 500 members but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many science communicators across industry and in government departments have never formally engaged with any public relations group.

Intriguingly, it appears the fastest growing demographic for new science communicators are scientists themselves.

Granting bodies, universities and research organisations now directly measure the ability for researchers to communicate science to the public. Media engagement has become an important key performance indicator for researchers but very few have any formal training in this area.

We are already seeing the rise of external communications agencies in the university sector and the development of regular communications workshops across a range of science bodies.

The strong public policy moves towards innovation and increased intellectual capacity as a means for future economic growth are putting science communication at the beginning of a growth curve.

Industry associations like PRIA will almost certainly be needed to play an important role in building the communications skillset of Australian science.

Author: Alvin Stone is the Media and Communications Manager for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. You can get in touch with Alvin on LinkedIn here.

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