An Atlas of Now

In recent years a dramatic shift has occurred in the collection and analysis of intelligence by government spying agencies. In addition to normal clandestine methods (cloaks and daggers and whatnot), governments around the world have come to recognise the value of ‘open source intelligence’: finding, selecting and acquiring information from publicly available sources to produce actionable intelligence.

What’s useful and cheap for governments can be useful – and attainable – for people interested in the big issues in society.

We are in the process building a system – using both established and novel open source intelligence methods – to gauge, assess and display changes in the online discussion of science and technology issues, controversies and dangerous alternate conceptions. Our goal is to develop a science communication ‘atlas of now’: revealing geographical and temporal changes in attitudes to science and technology issues throughout society.It’s been noted before that the decline in public trust in science has had a marked effect on the social acceptance of new technologies. As Fisher, Cribb and Peacock argue, “the community, through the media and lobby groups, has the power to block or stall the introduction of new technologies”. At the same time, a variety of alternate and dangerous pseudoscience understandings – rejection of the HIV-Aids connection, pseudoscience medicine and claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism – have shown remarkable persistence and penetration throughout society.

These developments together suggest that modern science communicators must embrace whatever means are available to gather ever greater knowledge about community understandings. Traditional methods of such data collection – mass surveys, telephone polls and focus groups – have proven powerful and useful in this, yet they are limited in that they are both expensive and, to some extent, forced (asking people to make a choice about an issue they’d previously thought little about).

Our method seeks to augment existing science communication data collection activities by examining and assessing the unforced conversation already taking place in modern social networks – such as on Twitter and Facebook – in order to build a picture of the contemporary science-society landscape. In this we plan to build an open-source tool available to all in the science communication community; an ‘atlas of now’, revealing geographical and temporal changes in attitudes to science and technology issues.

A paper will be presented on this project at the Australian Science Communicators National Conference February 2010.  See also

Will J Grant and Brenda Moon

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