6 July, 2011 by ehauke
I was preparing for a new course on science communication and engagement that I’m tutoring, and generally thinking about how to focus the engagement efforts of a group of scientists working in one particular field.
My concern was that we’d produce great materials, have some brilliant interactive experiences, but at the end of the day not actually achieve ‘engagement’ with anyone other than ourselves.
All scientists work on solving problems, answering questions. And that particular scientists work on particular problems, probably implies that they are interested in that area of science. They probably find it fascinating, and feel that their work is important. And it probably is.
But is it interesting to other people? Will it capture the imagination of the non-scientifically-initiated? Will it provoke conversation, thought and contemplation? A perfectly fine piece of science communication may fall flat if it doesn’t achieve at least some degree of connection with the intended audience.
And that is when I started thinking about apps. The little programs that we download and run on our smartphones. Many for free. Now I’m sure that everyone with a smart-phone has downloaded at least five apps that they’ve never used more than once. That might be because the app doesn’t work well, or operate smoothly. But it might have nothing to do with the quality of the app. It might just be that while the app is beautiful, functions well, and allows you to access important information, it just might not be relevant to you as an individual, in your everyday life.
So what makes an app successful?
- Accessibility – many of the best apps are free, and available on multiple platforms (like the Google Earth app)
- Super-Functionality – the app performs a function that saves us time or effort (like the Red Laser bar-code app that scans a product in a shop and then tells you where you can buy that product for less money)
- Data provision – many apps provide us with ready-information (like weather forecasting apps)
- Creative Imagination – there are many drawing, photography and image manipulation apps (such as Instagram)
- Connection – apps that allow us to interact with our friends and colleagues (such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and LinkedIn)
- Amusement – there are many, many successful gaming apps (like runaway success Angry Birds)
- Relevance – all the above need to matter to us as individuals – otherwise, what’s the point?
- Quality – there are enough apps out there, that we don’t need to waste our time with poorly functioning, buggy apps
How does that compare to engagement activities?
- Accessibility – well, people don’t go around looking to be engaged by things – we need to make science available and accessible; and in a time-pressured society, quick and easy is a must
- Super-Functionality – I think science is instantly appealing if it will save time and effort, so highlighting aspects of science that have the potential to save time, effort and money are winning themes for a lot of people
- Data Provision – there is a lot of data collected in the name of science, that would be very useful to know about – if it can be presented in an accessible format
- Creative Imagination – there is enough mundan-ery in life – people need engaging with something that will set their minds on fire!
- Connection – again science that saves time and effort, leaving more time for the things that matter most – friends and family – will prove popular
- Amusement – there is no harm in being amused, and this is a definite hook for some engagement activities
- Relevance – even the most beautiful and intricate scientific finding might struggle for attention if it doesn’t have relevance to our everyday lives or existence (including the things like the health of the planet)
- Quality – there is an increasing amount of science communications material around – we don’t need to suffer badly produced, ineptly targeted or patronising efforts
Not a perfect assimilation, granted. But possibly a helpful analogy when it comes to designing engagement activities and materials. We’d all like to design a killer app, but if we don’t take time to really consider who’ll be using it, and what they need from it, the app will sit on the shelf unused. And the same goes for engagement.
And now for a lovely example of something that straddles both the app and engagement category (although I don’t think it is officially an app – it definitely should be – and you have to look at it on the internet).
I came across the work of CASA (Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis) in a recent post by Martin Austwick on Sociable Physics. Some of their work was recently exhibited at the London Transport Museum, and was picked up in a report by the BBC. Now a lot of data visualisation is interesting to look at, allows you to spot patterns and conduct further analysis, but that’s about where it ends. However, one of the pieces of work is really functional.
I was really impressed by the London Bike Share Map by Ollie O’Brien. This map gives real-time (as near as damn it) data about the state of Boris Bike stations around London – how many bikes are available, and how many docking spaces are available. This is a really great use of the data, a stunning visualisation and a useful resource. Please check it out – it’s worth it!