February 4, 2013

On becoming a STEMnet ambassador: What, why and how?

A piece of raspberry pie

Creative Commons licensed picture of a DayGlo Raspberry Pi by @kevinv033 on Flickr

STEMNet is an organisation in the UK which creates opportunities to inspire young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Recently, along with about 15 PhD students from the CDT in Manchester, I became an STEM Ambassador. This post briefly describes what STEMNet is all about, why you would want to get involved and how you can do so.

What is STEMNet?

STEMnet is a network of volunteers (STEM ambassadors) who help schools and teachers by providing extra support in the classroom to teach topics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teachers can ask the network for all kinds of help, it might be, for example:

  • role models to do a Day in the Life of… session (e.g. Astronaut, Star Gazer, Genetic Engineer, Roboticist etc)
  • help with a Raspberry Pi workshop
  • support running a Science club
  • demonstrations of interesting technology that might not normally be available in school
  • et cetera

Ambassadors (who have been vetted by the DBS) respond to teacher requests or propose their own ideas. Ambassadors commit to doing at least one education or outreach event per year, and often end of doing more. Interesting and varied learning experiences usually follow.

Why you should get involved

There are plenty of reasons to get involved in STEMnet:

  • It can be great fun working with young people.
  • The world would probably be a BetterPlace™ if we had more scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. STEMNet is working towards achieving this important goal.
  • Schools and teachers need all the help they can get in the classroom, teaching is a challenging but important job.
  • If you think you’re a nifty communicator, there’s nothing quite like a classroom full of teenagers (or younger) for testing your theory.
  • Join an active and diverse network of around 30,000 ambassadors across the UK

How to get involved

Contact your friendly local STEMnet co-ordinator if you would like to become a STEM Ambassador. For Greater Manchester, that’s the good folk based at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI): Daniel O’Connell and Donna Johnson (featured in the video below).

We’ve got some exciting new projects planned via STEMNet, in addition to what’s already going on at cs.manchester.ac.uk/schools. Watch this space!

December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.


  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1

September 26, 2012

Fellows of the Wiki Society? The Royal Society in London experiments with Wikipedia

wiki wiki

The wiki-wiki (quick) shuttle bus in Hawaii by xordroyd. Creative Commons licensed picture from Flickr.

Regular readers of this blog might remember that back in June of this year, I suggested that the Royal Society should employ a wikipedian in residence. After emailing, blogging and other ranting, Paul Nurse got in touch with me to say that the Society was sympathetic to the idea and would investigate. His email is reproduced below:

From: Paul.Nurse ate royalsociety.org
Subject: Re: An Open Letter to the Royal Society: Please employ a wikipedian in residence
To: hulld ate cs.man.ac.uk
cc: Aosaf.Afzal ate royalsociety.org

Dear Duncan

I floated your idea about Wikipedia in the Society and it is being looked at to see what might be possible. Thanks for your suggestion.

Best wishes.


Time passed and the English summer dripped by in it’s typically rainy fashion. Then, earlier this month, Francis Bacon (not that Francis Bacon, but this Francis Bacon) contacted me, to say the Society is organising an edit-a-thon. With help from Uta Frith, the society is going to investigate the possibilities of wikipedia using Women in Science workshop as a pilot project. See Women of Wikipedia edit planned on BBC News.

This is great news and the event was fully booked in less than a day. It’s good to see a venerable society embracing new and disruptive technology in this way.

Compare and contrast the Royal Society with the Wiki Society

It is informative (and entertaining) to compare and contrast the Royal Society with wikipedia as the two organisiastions share some aims but are very different beasts:

wikipedia.org royalsociety.org
Purpose A place where every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. To recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity
Funding The Wikimedia foundation is a non-profit organisation that relies on donations to keep it going A registered charity in the UK, funding comes in the form of gifts and legacies from a range individuals and organisations
How to Join Egalitarian: any idiot one can click on the edit button to become a fellow of the wiki-society (FWS), also known as a wikipedian Elitist: Each year over 700 candidates are proposed by the existing Fellowship. From this pool, 44 Fellows, 8 Foreign Members and up to 1 Honorary Fellow are elected by a rigorous process. You have to do some pretty remarkable science or engineering to become an FRS
Age Only 11 years old in 2012, not even a troublesome teenager (yet). Has wisdom beyond its years. Over 350 years old, some of it’s members invented the modern world and continue to shape it today
Location Virtually the wiki-society is anywhere there is an internet connection. Physically, the head quarters are in San Francisco Based just off The Mall in London, many members cluster in the supposed Golden Triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Other fellows are scattered around the provinces with expats and Foreign Members dispersed around the globe.
Who’s a member 35 million editors, not all of whom are active. About 1500 living fellows including Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Harry Kroto, Tim Berners-Lee, Paul Nurse, David Attenborough and over 80 Nobel prize winners. Thousands more deceased members including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Robert Boyle etc
Profile Ordinary: Most wikipedians are ordinary and reasonable people, but internet trolls, spammers, snake oil sellers, lunatics, bigots, pedants, global village idiots, OCD sufferers other interesting characters are quite common on wikipedia Extraordinary: Most Fellows are extraordinary but reasonable people, some may also be Mad Scientists [citation needed]
Praised for Many things, see praise for the wikipedia and wikimedia projects. Funding excellent scientists and their Science. Engaging the public and young people in science through various events.
Criticised for The worlds biggest database of half-truths and white lies, see criticism of Wikipedia. Patrolled by annoying or partial editors and administrators. It can be frustratingly difficult to verify sources and wikipedia often lacks scientific credibility [1]. Being a nepotistic old boy network with an absence of women and very little in the way of youth. Ouch. Too many members have or currently work in, Oxbridge and London, possible geographic bias.
Origin The name wikipedia comes from the Hawai’in word for quick Wiki, see picture top right. The Royal Society is named after the British Monarchy, set up with help from Charles I. The name is a bit of a misnomer as you don’t need to be a royalist to join – republicans are welcome. In Middle English, the word Royal means s-l-o-w, traditional and painfully conservative [citation needed].

So there you have it, the Wiki Society and the Royal Society are unlike each other in many ways but they share a common goal of spreading knowledge. Perhaps the scientific content of wikipedia will be greatly improved through edit-a-thons and other events like this. Hopefully, the days where wikipedia will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about David Beckham but (at the time of writing) has absolutely nothing to say about leading scientists like John Aggleton, Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Robinson are numbered.

Thanks to Paul Nurse, Francis Bacon, Aosaf Afzal and Uta Frith for making it happen. If you can’t attend the edit-a-thon, watch this wiki-space via the twitter hashtag #WomenSciWP: interesting wiki-things might wiki-happen.


  1. Wodak, S.J., Mietchen, D., Collings, A.M., Russell, R.B. & Bourne, P.E. (2012). Topic Pages: PLoS Computational Biology Meets Wikipedia, PLoS Computational Biology, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002446

June 15, 2012

Alan Turing Centenary Conference, 22nd-25th June 2012

Alan Turing by Michael Dales

The Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Creative commons licensed picture via Michael Dales on Flickr

Next weekend, a bunch of very distinguished computer scientists will rock up at the magnificent Manchester Town Hall for the Turing Centenary Conference in order to analyse the development of Computer ScienceArtificial Intelligence and Alan Turing’s legacy [1].

There’s an impressive and stellar speaker line-up including:

Tickets are not cheap at £450 for four days, but you can sign up for free public lectures by Jack Copeland on Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age and Roger Penrose on the problem of modelling a mathematical mind. Alternatively, if you can lend some time, the conference organisers are looking for volunteers to help out in return for a free conference pass. Contact Vicki Chamberlin for details if you’re interested.


  1. Chouard, T. (2012). Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind Nature, 482 (7386), 455-455 DOI: 10.1038/482455a see also nature.com/turing

June 1, 2012

An Open Letter to the Royal Society: Please employ a wikipedian in residence

Dear Professor Nurse

Fellows of the Wiki Society?

To improve public engagement with Science and Scientists, the Royal Society should employ a wikipedian in residence. Here’s why:

The Royal Society is a National Academy of Science which represents some of the world’s leading scientists. The stated aim of the society is to:

“recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite the elitist nature of many scientific societies, a significant part of what the Royal Society does is engage with members of the general public of all ages through a wide range of events. The annual Summer Science exhibition, Royal Society Blogs, Policy Centre and Royal Society television channel are just a few examples from amongst many more.

Many Fellows are of interest to the general public and already have extensive biographies in wikipedia which are up to date, well-written, well-referenced and conform to the wikipedia guidelines for the biographies of living persons. Wikipedia biographies often appear top of the list of google search result for a scientists name, for example see:

However, many other scientists do not have pages about them on wikipedia. Unfortunately, alternative sources of information such as academic homepages are often out of date and not particularly engaging. Most scientists are too busy doing Science to spend time updating their home pages, as neatly illustrated by cartoonist Jorge Cham. At the time of writing, less than half of the notable and distinguished Fellows elected in 2012 have biographies on wikipedia, see below of details.

Putting scientific information into wikipedia isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Alex Bateman at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute [1], PLoS Computational Biology [2] and many others [3] have already made considerable progress in improving the scientific content of wikipedia. This information is immediately accessible to a huge global audience.

Wikipedia is arguably one of the greatest ever opportunities for public engagement in Science. By employing a wikipedian in residence, the Royal Society could improve and influence the scientific content of wikipedia, while engaging even more with the general public around the world, who are often just as interested in the scientists as the science itself. As the current president of the society I hope you will consider this proposal.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull
University of Manchester, UK

(this letter has also been sent by email)


  1. Daub, J., Gardner, P., Tate, J., Ramskold, D., Manske, M., Scott, W., Weinberg, Z., Griffiths-Jones, S., & Bateman, A. (2008). The RNA WikiProject: Community annotation of RNA families RNA, 14 (12), 2462-2464 DOI: 10.1261/rna.1200508
  2. Wodak, S., Mietchen, D., Collings, A., Russell, R., & Bourne, P. (2012). Topic Pages: PLoS Computational Biology Meets Wikipedia PLoS Computational Biology, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002446
  3. Xiao, L., & Askin, N. (2012). Wikipedia for Academic Publishing: Advantages and Challenges. Online Information Review, 36(3), 2. Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Appendix: Fellows of the Wiki Society

As of June 2012, only 21 out of the 52 of the Royal Society Fellows elected in 2012 have a biographical page on wikipedia. Where biographies currently exist, they are linked to below

Of course, 2012 is just the tip of the iceberg, there are also the Fellows elected in 20112010 and so on back 350 years to 1660.

May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.


  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a

May 18, 2012

Web analytics: Numbers speak louder than words

Two hundo! by B. Rosen

Two hundred light painting by B. Rosen, via  Flickr available by Creative Commons license

According to the software which runs this site, this is the 200th post here at O’Really To mark the occasion, here are some stats via WordPress with thoughts and general navel-gazing analysis paralysis [1] on web analytics. It all started just over six years ago at nodalpoint with help from Greg Tyrelle, the last four years have been WordPressed with help from Matt Mullenweg. WordPress stats are unfortunately very primitive compared to the likes of Google Analytics and don’t give you access to the server log files either. WordPress probably flatters to deceive by exaggerating page views and encouraging users to post more content, but it doesn’t count self-visits to the blog. Despite all the usual limitations of the murky underworld of web analytics and SEO, here are the stats, warts and all.

As of May 2012, this blog is just shy of 200,000 page views in total with 500+ comments (genuine) comments and 100,000+ spam comments nuked by the Akismet filter. The busiest day so far was the 15th February 2012 with 931 views of a post in a single day which got linked to by the Wall Street Journal. The regular traffic is pretty steady around the 1,000 views per week (~4000 views per month) mark. Most readers come from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany (jawohl! in that order) which breaks down as follows:

Top posts: What people read when they get here

The most popular pages here are as follows:

Page Views
Home page / Archives 33,977
Impact Factor Boxing 2010 17,267
Impact Factor Boxing 2009 10,652
How many journal articles have been published? 7,181
Impact Factor Boxing 2011 6,635

Are we obsessed with dodgy performance metrics like journal impact factors? I’m not, honest guv’, but lots of people on t’interwebs clearly are.

Top search terms: How people get here

The search engines send traffic here through the following search terms:

Search terms Views
plos biology impact factor 2010 3,175
impact factor 2010 1,631
impact factor 1,589
plos biology impact factor 1,566
impact factor 2009 1,333

Is there a correlation between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Impact Factor (IF)? Probably. Will it ever stop? Probably not.

Referrals: Spread the link love

It’s not just search engines that send you traffic…

Referrer Views
Search Engines 16,339
cs.man.ac.uk 4,654
Twitter 2,334
friendfeed.com 2,262
flickr.com 2,077
researchblogging.org 1,904
en.wordpress.com 1.037

… social media (twitter, friendfeed, flickr, researchblogging and wordpress etc) refers nearly as much traffic as the search engines do. I fit the demographic of bloggers previously described [1]: male, educated and a life scientist.

Top five clicks: How people leave

This is what people are clicking on:

URL Clicks
isiknowledge.com/JCR 914
feeds2.feedburner.com/oreally 407
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_on_arrival 396
aps.org/publications/apsnews/200811/zero-gravity.cfm 363
plosbiology.org 305

Dear Thomson Reuters, you should have an associates scheme like Amazon. I’m advertising your commercial product (Journal Citation Reports) for free! I’m far too kind, please send me a generous cheque immediately for my troubles or I will remove all links to your product.

Lots of people looking for the lyrics of the Friends sitcom jingle don’t know what “Your love life’s D.O.A.” means. Glad to be of service.


Traffic here is fairly modest compared to some blogs, but is still significant and to my mind justifies the time spent blogging. It is great fun to blog, and like most things in life, it can be very time consuming to do well. There is a long way to go before reaching the 10,000 hours milestone, maybe one day.

What people are actually interested in reading, and what you think they will be interested in reading are often two completely different things. Solo blogging has disadvantages and it’s been very tempting to try and join one of the many excellent blogging collectives like PLoS Blogs, Occam’s Typewriter or the Guardian science blogs. For the meantime though, going it alone on a personal domain name has it’s advantages too.

So, if you’ve read, commented or linked to this site, thank you very much. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy writing them. Like smartphones and wifi, it’s hard to imagine life without blogs and bloggers.


  1. Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J., & Thelwall, M. (2012). Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035869

May 8, 2012

BBC Connected Studio: Get involved in shaping digital content at the Beeb

BBC: The Olympic Broadcaster

Olympic broadcasting by the BBC from Quay House, Salford Quays, Manchester

The BBC is currently seeking external partners for collaborative innovation around BBC Online. This is happening through a series of events called BBC Connected Studio. It’s open to small, medium and micro businesses, individuals and digital agencies from the creative sector who want to work with the BBC developing new functions, features or formats for online audiences.

The first studio was held in Manchester last Friday focusing on Home Page, Search and Navigation (HPSN), a part of the Beeb that gets around 9 million (and up to 40 million) unique visitors every week from the UK alone. International visitors to this page get sent to bbc.com which is completely separate. Here are some rough notes on the event from a non-BBC outsiders perspective.

The basic format of the day goes something like this:

  • You are given a brief
  • There is an introduction from various people to kick things off
  • You have access to experts within the BBC, to pick their brains
  • There is time to work up your ideas on the day
  • Then you pitch an idea in ~2 minutes (like a much friendlier version of Dragons’ Den) to an assembled audience of about 80-ish people collected on the day.
  • There is time for questions and feedback
  • Successful pitches are notified after the event with the opportunity to build a functioning prototype and potential pilot project

For the event last Friday, the studio was kicked off by introductions from Ralph Rivera and Adrian Woolard, James Thornett and Clare Hudson.

During the day, there was expert advice available, formally at Speakers’ Corner and informally via conversation. This covered a wide range of topics including Simon Williams on audiences, Tim Fiennes on market analysis, Tom Broughton on homepage technology, Steve Gibbons on user experience and Phil Poole on personalisation.

Following this there was time to work on concepts and plan presentations, including a very useful audience feedback session with some real users of the BBC home page.

At the end of the day there were just over 20 open public pitches and 9 closed private pitches (those with sensitive intellectual property rights). I teamed up with Nick Drummond (of ATilla the AT-AT pet fame) to pitch an idea called Show Me More – providing links to BBC content directly on the home page (bbc.co.uk).

What worked well

The event went well, especially since this was the first one of the series. The audience feedback sessions and speakers corner were well organised and well attended. Whatever the outcome, this was a good opportunity to bid for work, see what goes on at the BBC and meet some of the people behind the BBC online. There was lots of advice available on how to work up a pitch, the audience was friendly and respectful. It was enlightening to watch other people’s presentations. The fifth floor of Quay house at MediaCityUK (pictured above) is an ideal venue for this kind of event with lots of different sized spaces for collaborating, thinking, eating, drinking and enjoying the fine views of Manchester from an elevated perspective.

How it could be improved

There was (inevitably?) a fair amount repetition in the 20 pitches as everyone was pitching to the same brief. It might be better next time to have fewer pitches and encourage people to work in slightly larger groups and reduce duplication. You can’t say very much in two minutes but perhaps that’s the idea…

As an aside, I’d love to see a public open API to BBC content, as far as I know there isn’t really one (yet). An open API would allow innovation by opening up content and services to organisations and businesses outside the BBC. Something along the lines of the Twitter API, Flickr API or Google Maps API would be great. An API seems to fit squarely with the needs of it’s constitution as a public service broadcaster. I asked about this at Speakers’ Corner and on twitter (speakers’ corner of the interwebs). There are security issues (as usual) but:

I think there might be a BBC SPARQL endpoint somewhere (there certainly used to be), which is an API of sorts but can’t find the exact location at the time of posting this.

All in all, BBC Connected Studio was informative and fun, thanks to Adrian Woolard and everyone at the BBC for your excellent hospitality. If you’re interested in taking part, it’s well worth joining in.

How to get involved

If you’d liked to get involved in BBC Connected, there are various events scheduled in 2012 on different products at the Beeb including: Weather & Travel, CBeebies, UX&D, CBBC, Sport, TV / iPlayer, News, Knowledge & Learning, Radio & Music. For more info subscribe to the BBC Internet blog, follow tweets @BBC_Connected or visit BBC Connected Studio.

August 15, 2011

Wikipedia: I Fought the Lore and the Lore Won

"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build wikipedia..."Fighting the lore of wikipedia is an increasingly futile battle but there are people who resist using and improving the online encyclopedia. The remarkable thing is that some of this resistance comes from the scientific and academic communities, two groups of people who are supposedly concerned with the dissemination of knowledge.

Wikipedia is the lore

With around 300 million visitors each month, wikipedia is firmly in the top ten of most trafficked websites in the world. But you don’t get 300 million visits without attracting some critics, many of whom object to wikipedia’s inaccuracies and the anonymity of some its contributors. What many critics object to is that wikipedia is the lore. That is not the law, but the lore, as in folklore. Like folklore, wikipedian knowledge often comes handed down by word of mouth, copy-and-paste and other questionable practices. The trouble with lore is, it can sometimes be unreliable, based on hearsay, gossip and urban myths rather than hard facts and knowledge favoured by scientists and academics. To some people, wikipedia is a lore which should be fought in every way possible.

Fighting the lore of wikipedia

Professor Neil Waters is one of many examples of an academic who has fought the lore of wikipedia. Water’s students were infamously told that they can’t cite wikipedia in their work [1]. They are still free to use it, but are forbidden to cite it, because of the lack of academic rigour. Wikipedia, the argument goes,  is a “tertiary source” rather than a primary one and therefore not suitable for serious research.

But people like Patricia Dooley have pointed out that academics fighting the use of wikipedia is hypocritical. In a small study published [2], she found that some university faculty members (the “two-faced professoriate” [2]) depend on Wikipedia in their teaching and published research despite the fact that they often discourage their students from using it. Are critics of wikipedia in the academy hypocrites fighting a losing battle?

Has the lore of wikipedia won?

As with many keywords, if you Google just about any scientific term, wikipedia will be in the first page of results. Here are some examples, taken from by Darren Logan’s why wikipedia is important in science:

At the time of writing, 90% of the search terms above have a wikipedia page as their very first Google hit. So, when it comes to accessibility and visibility, the lore of wikipedia is winning.

Improving the lore of wikipedia: Don’t fight it, edit it

So wikipedia is winning but many articles with scientific content are incomplete, inaccurate or just plain wrong. What should scientists do about it?  Rather than discouraging students to use it, wouldn’t it be better if academics and scientists encouraged their students to correct it? Fusing the lore of wikipedia with the law of science in this way is perhaps, the “greatest ever opportunity for public engagement”.  Ornithologist Alexander Bond is the latest in a long line of scientists arguing exactly this case [3]. Where wikipedia is wrong, he suggests that scientists have a duty to make sure that it is accurate and up to date:

“Regardless of the academy’s views on Wikipedia, it will remain a resource used by students, researchers and the public for the near future. Academics should appropriate Wikipedia as a teaching and outreach tool, resulting in higher quality information, more engaged students and a better-informed public.”

So if you’re a scientist or any other kind of academic, there is plenty of help and advice on hand [4] and many different wiki-projects to get involved in. Don’t fight the lore, edit it.


  1. Neil L. Waters (2007). Why you can’t cite Wikipedia in my class Communications of the ACM, 9, 15-17 DOI: 10.1145/1284621.1284635
  2. Patricia L. Dooley (2010). Wikipedia and the two-faced professoriate WikiSym ’10 Proceedings of the 6th International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration DOI: 10.1145/1832772.1832803
  3. Alexander L. Bond (2011). Why ornithologists should embrace and contribute to Wikipedia Ibis, 153 (3), 640-641 DOI: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2011.01135.x
  4. Darren Logan, Massimo Sandal, Paul Gardner, Magnus Manske, & Alex Bateman (2010). Ten simple rules for editing Wikipedia. PLoS computational biology, 6 (9) PMID: 20941386
  5. Sonny Curtis et al (1959) I Fought The Law (and the Law Won) as covered by The Clash:

[Acknowledgement: thanks to wikipedian Paul Gardner for posting the Bond paper on the journal picks. Image above via wikipedia.]

July 26, 2010

Please Sir, I want some more Science!

Science Online London 2010 (soloconf)Science Online London (#solo10 September 3-4, 2010) is an annual gathering of people interested in the use of web technologies for scientific collaboration and communication.  The organisers at Mendeley, Nature Network and The British Library continue to do a great job of hosting this important gathering, now in its third year:

I’ve been the last two years (2008 and 2009), and it has been worth attending because of the mix speakers, delegates and topics covered. This year includes talks from:

See the impressive full programme here. Reading through the speaker list I wondered, where are all the scientists at science online this year? At the time of writing this, 12 of the 13 speakers are politicians, publishers or journalists with scientist Peter Murray-Rust the odd man out. I’ve nothing against politicians, publishers or journalists but it would be great to have a more balanced event this year. The UK is full of high-profile scientists with blogs who would probably jump at the opportunity to speak at this event. So:

Or as the skeptical Sid Rodrigues said “this looks like fun, needs more nerds though“…

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