Several years ago I found myself in a room with people on the forefront of the climate movement. Among their ranks were journalists, advocates, and members of nonprofit organizations. These science communicators had gathered to address an issue each of them had been grappling with – how do I find all of the information that I need and communicate it with the people that need to hear it?
The questions seemed so fundamental that I had assumed everyone in attendance already knew the answers. I didn’t, of course, because I was the outsider. As an astrophysicist, research for me is relatively straightforward. There are a limited set of journals that cover our field and a convenient web interface, NASA’s Astrophysics Data System (ADS), to search across their articles.1Friends in other fields have sung the praises of similar programs like EndNote and Mendeley. The program not only links users to all references in an article’s bibliography, but also reports which papers ended up citing that article. Smart engines could even recommend other papers to read based on your selections.
I have found tracking down information online in the realm of climate/energy policy to be more difficult. There are many more organizations doing independent research or running their own initiatives. Think tanks, NGOs, and government agencies are more likely to publish and promote on their own websites than through peer-reviewed journals. The impacts of climate change are so vast that they cut across traditional academic disciplines. They influence weather, oceans, atmospheres, ecosystems, human health, urban development, energy systems, breakthrough technologies, and many more.
When information is so widely dispersed, and we lack smart engines to find them automatically for us, what should our information collection strategy be? I don’t profess to have the “right answer” to this problem, should one even exist. But I’ve spent enough time gathering suggestions from others and trying them out for myself that I felt compelled to report some of the strategies and sources that have worked for me.
Before I begin, I want to comment that you can’t put everything together overnight. I’ve found that so much of the process is just keeping your ear to the ground. When an article I’m reading references an organization with which I’m unfamiliar, I jot it down. I visit their website, make a note about their mission and, if they have them, subscribe to their newsletter and Twitter feeds. I use Twitter lists to tag the feeds and keep them organized.
A great first source for content is Google, which offers among the best suite of tools for aggregating real-time news. Through Google News, you can personalize your news feed to return only the topics and regions you are interested in. The service allows you to specify whether you want content rarely, occasionally, sometimes, often, or always. Google Alerts goes a step further and contacts you when new information becomes available. Many news outlets offer the same capability.
If you are having difficulty deciding what’s important in the moment, the very cool newsmap may be the tool for you. Powered by Google’s search engine, newsmap visualizes the news by separating it into color-coded categories like World, National, Business, Technology, Sports, Entertainment, and Health. The color saturation reflects how old the story is, while the size shows how much it is being reported online. As with Google, you can filter by country and newsource. It’s a handy way to ascertain what’s hot right now.
Over time, or perhaps through a mentor, you may discover that your field has its own news/reference engines. Lawyers gather their research through the library database LexisNexis. Climate and energy folks have the Global Reference on the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources (GREENR). Environment & Energy Publishing reports all the top developments. The news and analysis website Responding to Climate Change (RTCC) provides the latest news regarding low carbon developments.
Another great way to be exposed to new content is through Flipboard2and Zite, which it recently acquired. After signing up, Flipboard presents you with an absurd number of topics to choose from. They range from the conventional (e.g. religion, technology, art) to the more specific (e.g. industrial design, startups, social justice). You select the topics that interest you and Flipboard scours the web to produce a curated magazine readable on most devices. You can also stumble upon new content using, well, StumbleUpon. It has the same idea, but rather than curating material, it randomly deposits you at relevant webpages until you press a button to “stumble” to the next one. I have found a lot of really excellent content through this service.
Because the combined readership of an article or report is likely to possess more cumulative knowledge than the authors themselves, one should never discount the value of user comments. Sites like the New York Times and Ars Technica have great comment engines where user contributions can be elevated to “reader’s picks” or “editor’s picks”. It’s a great way to sample the wisdom of the masses and be exposed to a much broader perspective.
It literally took me years to assemble the repository of references I now possess. In the world of climate and energy policy, I found that information typically arrives in one of three forms – organizational reports, raw or lightly processed data, and independent projects.
Organizational reports are usually published by issue-focused research groups. For climate and energy, there are way more than I could name here. These include the National Academy of Sciences, the United States Global Change Research Program, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Brookings, Energy Innovation, and many more.
Two of my personal favorites are the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. These academic centers were created to conduct unbiased social science research on how people engage with climate change. They discovered that people are more concerned about “global warming” than “climate change.” They reported what weathercasters think about climate change and its impact on weather, and questioned whether the level of sciencific consensus on climate change ought to be communicated numerically or non-numerically.
The second form information arrives in is raw or processed datasets. Government agencies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are great resources here, as they have tons of images, datasets, and visualization tools that let you tell your own story from primary sources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and International Energy Agency (IEA) also offer tons of data to play around with.
Some groups are content to curate data in very specific ways. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) categorizes state policies that promote renewable energy as either financial incentives or rules and regulations. Frack Track provides a self-described “geospatial policy tool” that analyzes and visualizes Pennsylvania’s new wave of gas development on the Marcellus shale. Wells, permitted sites, and locations of violations are provided on a map.
The third form is independent projects, a term that I’m admittedly using as something of a catchall. These include initiatives that aim to tell the story of climate change in unique ways. For example, for their project Atlantic Rising three friends started a journey to travel the 1-meter above sea level contour line to see what life would be like in a flooded world. They interacted with thousands of people in 22 countries gathering photos, film, and writings as they documented the changing lives of those along the rim.
Photographer John Weller believes the best way to protect the environment is by reminding people of nature’s visceral beauty. He spent a decade traveling to the rough waters of the Ross Sea, probably the last, undamaged ocean ecosystem left on earth. His stunning photographs of the region’s living creatures, both above and below the water, have been cataloged in the book The Last Ocean.
Finally, it is sometimes most useful to just speak to people personally. While conferences can be a great place to do this, these environments can be intimidating for newcomers to a field. There are some tricks you can employ to make this process go more smoothly, but I will reserve them for a future post.
Of course, simply having information is not enough. You must synthesize and deliver it to your audience in an effective way. This raises a whole new set of challenges that I will get into in my next post.