30 January 2012

Big data for development

Communications can provide insights into poverty, so studying communications patterns can be helpful for designing development policies and programmes. That’s just one point emerging from a study at Harvard University’s Engineering Social Systems programme which is looking into ‘big data’, the new buzz word in academia, government, development and media circles.

And they are not alone. Academics from New York University and the University of New South Wales have published a series of ‘provocations’ to spark discussion about access to data and how it is used. “Will large-scale analysis of DNA help cure diseases? Or will it usher in a new wave of medical inequality?”

The United Nations has launched the project Global Pulse, which aims to evaluate masses of data in order to generate early warning signals about developmental challenges, ranging from crop failures to social discontent that can trigger civil conflict.

Big business is also hot on the trail. Mckinsey & Co. have published a paper on ‘the next frontier of data’. Of note, they don’t define big data by the size, since what is big today will be manageable before long: “big data refers to datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze”. With the benefits of exploiting such data predicted to exceed $300 billion to the US health sector annually, it is no wonder McKinsey is taking interest.

Ultimately it is all about you and me. Big data reflects the increasing capacity to track our every move, especially online. From spending patterns and vacation histories, to web browsing and more, the interests and habits of the greater public have never before been so well documented. It is opening a big opportunity for planners and policymakers, as well as marketers, strategists and also those who would exploit the information for less agreeable purposes – legal or otherwise. It is thus important and potentially very valuable that legislators and regulators both support open access to data for legitimate research, but also necessary to protect personal privacy, safeguard the integrity of data and set standards on its collection and the application of findings.

Further reading of interest: Bloomberg Business Week, on the dangers of insufficient information.
Publisher Tim O’Reilly on Google+ reports on a recent discussion of success factors, including the power of visualising  data. 

23 January 2012

Blogging on-message

Many institutions want bloggers to back their cause, and for good reason: they can be highly influential due to large audiences and a sense that they are genuine and authentic voices.

But getting bloggers on your side can be tricky. Companies and consultants have been publicly shamed for trying to pay bloggers or put undue pressure on them.

There are better, more transparent ways to get bloggers to take an interest in your cause. Some institutions actively solicit relationships, offer access to executives, and try to learn more about bloggers' needs and interests.

Another idea is a public competition to champion good 'journalism'. This encourages blogger participation and audience voting. It is a popular concept from the days of print and broadcast journalism, where awards give journalists much-valued recognition, often for years of hard work and professional standards.

A newly-announced campaign for World Environment Day (WED) by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Treehugger.com is a good example of how to transparently solicit blogger interest and involvement in your cause.

The competition offers the winner a free trip to Brazil, 3-6 June 2012, in the expectation that the blogger will write and tweet about World Environment Day events. Bloggers are invited to enter by submitting blog articles on the Green Economy - the theme for WED 2012. The entries must be dated between 16 January and 12 February 2012 and will then be subject to a public vote, with the winner announced in May.

The structure of the competition is clever, as it will potentially generate public attention, get bloggers writing about the conference theme, prompt people to think about which blog is best, and also introduce a strong (unpaid) writer to the team covering the event in Brazil (and include their pre-built audience).

While the competition is well designed, UNEP will hopefully have thought long and hard about the mixed message of inviting environmentally-conscious bloggers to bid for international flights. It would be useful to hear their persuasive argument about why this is a good trade-off.

12 January 2012

Are your research communications working?

Monitoring and evaluating communications about research is hard work, says Nick Scott, the digital and events communications manager at the UK's Overseas Development Institute.

But, in his blog post, he provides some useful ways to focus and get the job done. He also reviews some of the many useful tools available online and makes helpful points on academic citation analysis, which is particularly relevant for research communications.

Part of the problem is that social media websites, like Google+ and Facebook, media sites like YouTube and Flickr and tools like Slideshare and MailChimp provide very different information. It would be easy to get confused, measure too much or monitor the wrong things.

How to cope? Just do the best you can; keep it simple and be pragmatic, Scott says.

Tools discussed include:
Google Analytics
Weblog Expert, Google Trends and StatBrain.
Google Webmaster Tools for search engine optimization,
Google Feedburner for analysis of RSS subscribers,
TwitterCounter, Klout, Topsy, Facebook Insights,
Google Alerts and Social Mention,
Publish or Perish,
Survey Gizmo,
Qlikview, Zoho Reports, and Google Fusion Tables.