Can shaking buildings be exciting? A live taping of You’re the Expert at MIT Museum on April 16 revealed the answer is “yes” – especially when one’s surrounded by an appreciative audience in Cambridge on a Tuesday night.

You’re the Expert uses comedy to add pizzazz and the occasional double entendre to explanations of academic research. According to the show’s website, its podcast has been climbing the charts on iTunes.

The comedians applied their razor-sharp wits to solving structural engineering problems and defining jargon. Although their responses would have been academic disasters in a civil engineering class, they led to explosions of laughter.

What are modal parameters? “This bridge is dead,” comedian Myq Kaplan said, confusing the words with “mortal parameters.”

What is system identification? “When a bridge tells you what its name is,” Kaplan replied.

What is structural health monitoring? Placing monitor lizards on a bridge, an audience member guessed.

monitor lizard
Would you want this lizard to test a bridge for you? Photo Credit: Joachim S. Müller via Compfight cc

The guest, assistant professor Babak Moaveni from Tufts University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, assured us no lizards are involved in structural health monitoring.

Structural health monitoring, Moaveni’s specialty, focuses on finding out how “healthy” a building, bridge or other structure may be – and how long it is likely to survive. It’s like using a stethoscope or other medical test equipment – except for structures, not people. 

The equipment Moaveni uses is sometimes expensive. He can send a drone helicopter underneath a bridge to measure how well the bridge is holding up under its everyday loads.

Moaveni also shakes buildings to find out how they respond. The audience chortled while he explained how he excites buildings by using mechanical shakers.

“The smaller one is called Mighty Mouse,” Moaveni said with a straight face.

“Could it make me a martini?” comedian Robert Woo asked.

Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can't make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc
Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can’t make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc

Kaplan described nondestructive testing dramatically. “Just as Batman did in The Dark Knight, this man and his army of cameras are our last line of defense.”

Moaveni doesn’t just shake structures and take photos of them, though. Some of the testing is destructive.

“We are planning to destroy a building in California. It’s in the city of El Centro,” Moaveni said. He explained that every structure has its natural frequency, but that does not mean it is destroyed at that frequency.

“I’m not saying we go and break something to hear the damage,” Moaveni clarified. He uses these tests to find out how buildings respond to earthquakes.

Gesturing overhead, Moaveni described how one might test a building like the MIT Museum.

“This building is already excited,” Chris Duffy, the host and producer, quipped.

“This is the most excited a museum gets,” Kaplan said.

“Usually, my class doesn’t get this excited,” Moaveni said as he described the definition of manual excitation. Loud guffaws from the audience interrupted him.

Moaveni said his current research involves predicting when structures may fail in the future. “We want to have a ‘check building’ light,” he said.

Since 30 percent of bridges in the United States have outlived their design life, according to Moaveni, being able to predict when a bridge will fail would be extremely useful.

“Is that man a God? Maybe. That is up to peer review,” Woo commented.

I’m starting to believe apocalyptic predictions are becoming a journalistic cliché. Just this last week, an anticlimactic end of the world generated a considerable amount of tourism in Central America. And this isn’t the first time people have expected the world to end recently. The Rapture was scheduled to occur last year. The year 2000 was also supposed to bring mass disruption to society.

Apocalyptic predictions are also becoming commonplace in environmental news, a genre I read and write regularly. Because I wrote a graduate thesis on media framing, I have strong opinions about the uselessness of this story line.

Thinking about apocalypses paralyzes audiences. It also creates fear and removes personal responsibility. The end of the world is, by definition, beyond our control. In contrast, global warming is a situation where we can limit the damage.

Here’s a simple analogy to describe global warming’s effect on how we think.

When I was in junior high, I went sledding with a friend. My sled went out of control and began sailing in a dangerous direction. Since I was a levelheaded pre-teenager, I realized I had three options:

  1. I could pretend nothing was wrong. This is the way most Americans I know respond to global warming today. They make very few lifestyle changes. Most of my friends and relatives are not passionate environmentalists. Inaction is a very common response to large-scale environmental problems.
  2. I could panic. This is the “deer in the headlights” response to global warming which I see very often among concerned environmentalists. Apocalyptic framing in the news feeds directly into this situation. Some people who panic become hyper-focused on self-preservation. Others freeze, do nothing, worry, and never take proactive actions. And some take practical actions that are rational, but do so with a huge burden of fear and guilt.
  3. I could choose to minimize the damage. That is what I did; I intentionally flipped the sled over before it went completely out of control. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t injured. This attitude is the most practical way to respond to global warming today, I think. We need to recognize we’re going out of control, be realistic, take action, risk embarrassment, make mistakes, and salvage the situation as best we can.

Unfortunately, the news industry is not designed to lead audiences toward such a rational response to environmental disasters. Instead, we are given narratives that suggest we have already failed and that the end is near. This happens because:

  1. In the United States, there is a bias within journalism against recommending actions or solutions. There is also a bias against communicating the recommendations of advocacy organizations. I think that in a situation as dire as the one we face with global warming, it’s reasonable to call these judgments biases. There is nothing objective about failing to recommend action in the face of an emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend hurricane preparedness; why aren’t more reporters recommending reducing the impact of global warming?
  2. Negative news attracts more pageviews. In the old school lingo – “If it bleeds, it leads.” Stories with positive angles lack shock value. If pageviews are a cynical writer’s only goal, then yes, apocalyptic framing works until audiences burn out. Some audiences may already tune out environmental news because of its negativity.
  3. Some environmentalists deliberately frame these stories as apocalyptic to raise awareness or communicate urgency. Reporters then pick up on this culturally powerful framing and transmit it to readers. Based on the popularity of apocalypses today, it’s understandable that this framing is common. But it is also disempowering, discouraging and fear-generating.

What’s the solution? Well, I plan to be a good example for other writers and take the “end of the world” frame out of my media vocabulary. I want to leave readers empowered with common sense information, not paralyzed with anxiety about the future.

And from now on, any time that someone suggests to me that an apocalypse is coming, I will be deeply skeptical. I suggest you do the same.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit oicweave.org.

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

claimtoken-50a01a203f085What makes energy journalism worth reading? Critical thinking, synthesis of information and perspectives, and coverage of the real-world impacts of programs can differentiate quality energy writing from other energy news.

I curate and write energy news for the Clean Energy Finance Center. So I’ve sorted through thousands of RSS posts and many Google alerts, looking for content that contains quality analysis and newsworthy ideas.

After reading these articles, I began asking questions about how energy journalism can be improved. A recent article from Grist explores this question from an industry-wide perspective. In this post, I’m offering a counterpoint to the Grist article by taking a “nuts and bolts” approach and brainstorming about how writers can improve their work.

A blog post from SmartPlanet has critiqued the absence of critical thinking and data analysis in some energy journalism. In January, I wrote a follow-up post with suggestions about how writers can ask questions about their data and get better results.

Thinking about the sources and reliability of data is just the beginning of retooling energy journalism, though. To make energy writing jump off the screen and catch readers’ attention, writers should try synthesizing information in original ways and reaching outside the field for ideas from other sources.

The Energy Efficiency Markets Blog* stands out as a very strong example of information synthesis. The authors of this blog draw ideas from multiple sources rather than writing single-sourced articles. They also develop interesting and original angles for stories.

Synthesizing ideas from multiple sources is one way to add depth to news stories and to combine ideas from interviewees who may disagree with one another. This can make energy journalism both more useful and more engaging than it would be otherwise.

Drawing on ideas from multiple stakeholders can also introduce practical perspectives. Practical perspectives can strengthen news articles, connect ideas to everyday life, and add human interest. I would encourage energy writers to reach beyond their usual lists of sources. For example, an article on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might benefit from quotes from workforce development professionals, people whose homes have been weatherized, and green jobs training program graduates.

Weatherization photo
Including quotes and photos of weatherization can be one way to tell the story of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Source: Photobucket)
Energy efficiency and renewable energy decisions are not just theoretical mathematical exercises. Including the everyday stories of people who participate in these programs and/or benefit from them can add human interest to these stories and help a broader audience relate to them.

If you take the idea of synthesis to its logical conclusion, you’ll arrive at interdisciplinarity. One reason I combine communications ideas with writing about technical subjects is that I’m convinced these two fields can benefit from collaboration. Communicators can benefit from learning more about math and science, including how to cover it accurately. Engineering and science professionals can also benefit from learning communications skills.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, have recommended training science graduates in media skills and paying them to do outreach.

Some energy organizations encourage researchers to write articles already. Many of the best articles I see on energy efficiency and renewable energy are produced by researchers, not media professionals. If research organizations start investing more in outreach than they do today – a step which I believe is necessary in the face of climate change and widespread science illiteracy – some of these researchers may end up as communicators.

Some of the skills that improve research – synthesis, critical thinking and awareness of practical outcomes – are the same skills which can strengthen energy journalism. So I’d encourage energy writers to think like researchers. I’d also encourage energy researchers to learn media skills and write news articles.

* Disclaimer: I collaborate with one of the authors of the Energy Efficiency Markets Blog.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Are your audiences reading your newsletter? Or are they using it to make Halloween costumes? Are they recycling it into shellacked paper coasters? If it’s electronic, are they deleting it? Questions like these preoccupy communications specialists.

The book Your Attention, Please describes how it’s becoming difficult to attract sustained interest from readers. Before the Internet, people were likely to take their time reading mail. Now, we’re deluged with hundreds of e-mails. Many of them are newsletters.

How can you bring your moribund newsletter to life and make it stand out from the mass of spam and other undesirable messages? Here are a few guidelines to help you revive your copy. (A great way to bring your newsletter back from the dead is to hire me as a consultant. I specialize in bringing science-related newsletters to life.)

Zombie
A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s zombie apocalypse blog post.)

Your newsletter’s vital signs may fizzle if:

  1. Your newsletter is focused on your organization, not your readers. One reason your newsletters are gathering dust may be that they are not speaking to the needs and interests of your audiences. Think about how your organization can be a good conversationalist. Don’t be the person at the cocktail party who bores everyone by holding forth about uninteresting topics. Cut out the content that won’t interest your audiences. If it’s necessary to keep it for other reasons, bury it behind a link.
  2. Your content is too text-heavy. Are you requiring readers to wade through long paragraphs of text to find buried nuggets of valuable information? They probably won’t. When reading online, your audiences will skim the content. Use short paragraphs, straightforward language, and links. Use bold font to emphasize key points.
  3. Your newsletter is not in the right medium. Do your audiences adore Pinterest but ignore snail mail? Do they avoid social media in favor of sifting through their email? If you choose the right delivery medium for your newsletter, that can increase readers’ interest.
  4. You need to work on your messaging and engagement strategies. If you’re promoting events that no one attends or recommending actions that no one takes, you may have a messaging problem. You may not be communicating the benefits of taking action. The actions may be too difficult for your readers. If you provide easy-to-take actions and communicate their benefits clearly, you may get better results.
  5. Your most interesting content is buried. Where are those bits of gold – the most valuable information in your existing newsletter? Dig them out and bring them to the beginning. Think of your newsletter as a newspaper article. Journalists typically begin an article with the most important information, if they’re using the inverted pyramid style of writing.

Keep your newsletter simple, useful, concise and interesting. Your readers shouldn’t have to get out a shovel to dig out your most valuable content. If you make your readers’ lives easier, they will appreciate it. Redesigning your approach to newsletter writing can turn a yawn into a smile. Even dead newsletters can be revived.

This post is a response to a question I received from Climate Access. How does one put a human face on images of global warming?

Local images engage audiences. In recent years, lack of locally relevant images and stories has damaged media sources’ ability to communicate about global warming. Now that we are beginning to see global warming is damaging infrastructure, flooding island communities, and displacing people, it is becoming easier to find images that capture global warming’s effects.

Flooding in Manhattan
Potential levels of future flooding in Manhattan. (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

This map of projected New York City flooding is from Union of Concerned Scientists and was republished by Gothamist. Showing a map like this to New Yorkers on a downtown street – and videotaping their reactions – could create a strong wake-up call for urban residents.

Beach vacation spots are also at risk. Given that flooding maps project that the entire southern tip of Florida will be affected by sea level rise, an image of tourists on a beach like the one below could appeal to people who value their vacation destinations.

Beach photo
Florida beaches like this one may disappear as global warming progresses. (Source: AllBestWallpapers.com)

In Alaska, roads are beginning to crack for a variety of reasons. One cause of the damage is global warming, which is shifting the permafrost underneath the highways. The image below, from the New York Times’ Science section, shows a road in the Yukon which is starting to break. A video of a driver attempting to traverse a broken road would put a human face on global warming in the far north.

A cracked road in the Yukon
Cracking on the shoulder of the road north of Burwash Landing, Yukon. (Source: Government of Yukon)

In Texas and other states, hurricanes may increase in strength due to global warming. The predictions vary. Once more information is available, it may be true that images like the one below capture one facet of global warming. The photo below was taken in Seabrook, Texas and appeared in National Geographic. The woman in the photo returned to her home to find it flattened.

A woman viewing her house after a hurricane
A woman standing on the remains of her house after a hurricane. (Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

With global warming, it’s hard to pinpoint some cause-and-effect relationships. Although sea level rise is well known, other issues, such as migrating fish populations and erratic weather, are more difficult to attribute to global warming directly. Multiple causes may be at work. As we learn more about the results of global warming, science communicators will know which images to use with confidence and which to set aside.

When teaching people about science online, what tools should you have in your toolbox?

Science communication, at its best, cuts past popular intimidation about science and math to reach any audience. This video shows why it’s important to make science communication exciting.

What is Science Communication? from Morag Hickman on Vimeo.

Here’s a list of concepts to add to the tools you use when communicating science online.

1. Learning Styles

Although you may be a visual thinker and learn well by using mind maps or flow charts, your audiences may prefer listening or participating in active demonstrations. When I was working in a factory in 2001, I found that my coworkers on the shop floor preferred handling three-dimensional prototypes to reading files and printouts.

Some of your audiences may prefer concrete examples to abstract information or prefer synthesizing ideas to breaking them down. Science communication in classrooms usually favors abstract concepts, visual and auditory learning, and breaking down ideas. This leaves many students – especially ones who prefer concrete examples and active learning – out in the cold. This is one reason that science developed its “chilly” reputation.

2. Storytelling

Why does storytelling matter in science communication? For many reasons. If you’re trying to craft a message or idea that audiences will remember, a story line can act as a hook to increase their interest and help them remember the information.

People who provide on-the-job training are aware of the power of storytelling and use it frequently. I’ve seen one example in which a trainer used storytelling to teach an audience how to remember people’s names.

Storytelling is especially important if you want to encourage an audience to take a socially positive action. Smartmeme is one organization which uses storytelling about social issues to capture the attention of audiences.

Poynter’s News University offers storytelling courses for journalists. I recommend their video and audio storytelling classes highly.

3. Analogies

Comparing an unfamiliar science concept to a known one – especially an everyday experience – is a great tool for science communicators. You can use analogies to show differences in scale – for example, comparing the size of the sun to the size of other planets. Analogies can become very important if you’re describing things that are difficult to see or imagine, like nanoparticles.

You can also use analogies to compare and contrast human experiences with those of other species – for example, to describe the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. While it’s tempting to compare humans to animals, sometimes the similarities can lead to people personifying animals and thinking that we are more similar to them than we are.

A wave of infographics has hit the Internet. In this sea of visual information, how can one decide what differentiates a good infographic from a bad one? How can you decide whether or not to make an infographic of your own?

Surprise Your Readers

I believe the best infographics change readers’ perspectives. The infographic below – about the relationship between fitness and intelligence – shifted my perspective when I read it.

Stereotypically, many people in the United States think exercise has little to do with being an “A” student. For people who have demanding jobs, there can even be social pressure not to exercise.

This infographic from Classes and Careers shows that exercise improves mental performance throughout one’s life.

Exercise Makes You Smart - Infographic

Think in Terms of Graphics, Not Words

Here’s an infographic which is too text-heavy. The organization which created it, FitnessHealthZone, has put lengthy explanations in the infographic rather than pulling out key statistics and diagramming them.

Vegetables and Physical Activity - Infographic

Use Design to Make Your Points Clear

Present information in ways that make sense to readers and lead them through your thought process.

Would you start a PowerPoint presentation with your last slide? Probably not. Expect your reader’s eye to travel through the infographic in sequence. Treat the infographic as a presentation that starts at the top of the page. Use design to draw readers’ attention to the sequence of ideas you want them to see.

The following infographic from Health Science should begin with images about the health impacts of sugar. Because it omits them, it is much less persuasive than it would be otherwise. Also, one of the diagrams implies that 44 percent of an individual fruit drink contains juice rather than showing that 44 percent of all fruit drinks contain juice.

Motivate Action by Focusing on Impacts

If you’re going to use an infographic to encourage readers to take political action, it’s especially important that you motivate them to do so. The fruit drink infographic focuses on documenting advertising dollars while omitting most of the health concerns. The advertising dollars aren’t the main problem – the health consequences are.

Make Recommended Actions Easy to Do

Asking a relatively passive online audience to push legislators for regulation of fruit drinks may not be realistic. A link to a petition might be a better option.

The personal actions shown below – drinking water and reading ingredient lists – are likely to appeal to parents and shoppers.

The infographic about vegetables and exercise suggests many easy actions but doesn’t present them in a graphic format.

Use Contrast and Humor

The exercise and intelligence infographic uses contrasts to show the effects of different types of exercise.

The fruit drink infographic is the best example of contrast and humor in this post. Its use of mustaches to represent misbehaving beverages is catchy. The calorie comparison between fruit drinks and chicken legs is also well done.

Soda's Evil Twin - Fruit Drinks

Find Online Design Tools

Are you interested in making your own infographics? Try visiting Visual.ly. Makeuseof has reviewed a few other tools. .Net Magazine has a tutorial which outlines some of the ideas I’ve included above but doesn’t focus on motivation, logical flow and action as much as I did in this post.

In journalism, there’s a relatively new movement called Hacks/Hackers. I call it a movement because it appears to be more than a trend or isolated group. Journalists who are part of Hacks/Hackers seek to mix tech smarts with journalism savvy.

Is Journalism Marrying Technology?

Because I got an engineering degree before studying mass communication, it’s fascinating for me to watch this movement expand. Infographics, multimedia, Web 2.0 and other techniques of the information revolution combine with journalism’s traditional tools of the trade to create hybrid communication styles. For storytellers with graphic design and video experience, the possibilities are endless.

My first encounter with the idea of technologically advanced storytelling came via mashups. Since then, I’ve seen alternatives proliferate online. For example, Beth Kanter’s blog uses infographics and video on nonprofit communication to amplify her message. I am interested in moving this blog in that direction by adding more multimedia content.

Does Social Media Use Move Writers Closer to Gonzo Journalism?

A recent blog post reflecting on a Hacks/Hackers meetup in Boston brings up the question of how personal storytelling affects objectivity in new media journalism. Telling personal stories is a standby for me on this blog; in the world of Web 2.0, having a personality is an advantage. But this makes it difficult for writers to maintain the professional distance from their stories that many journalism organizations have expected.

While I follow rules about balance – which depend on the project I’m doing and its audience – my blog does have a personality. This doesn’t mean every aspect of my life belongs in my Twitter feed. But it does mean that social media has changed the way I write and has moved my blogging style away from traditional newswriting toward a fusion of the personal and the professional.

As a graduate student, I drew on my personal experience of living in urban communities to develop my research and thesis. That certainly colors my perspective on writing about environmental justice. In the interest of balance, I should say I’ve also worked in electronics factories and research labs which contributed to chemical pollution. I became interested in life cycle analysis while I was working in one of these factories.

There is a tradition called gonzo journalism in which writers go out and state their experiences without claiming objectivity. To the extent that social media makes journalists show their personal experiences, blogging may be bringing us closer to that style of writing. The popularity of reality TV shows that being oneself can appeal to audiences. I’m not suggesting that journalists’ lives should be open books, or that social media should make us all write like Hunter S. Thompson, but it’s interesting to watch how writers merge the personal and professional in their social media work.


If you like this blog, visit my Facebook page and Twitter feed.

There’s power in numbers. That was the consensus in the workshops I visited this Friday at the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission’s Data Day in Boston.

MAPC Data Day logo

The name “Data Day” may not conjure up visions of dramatic reversals of public policy. But the community advocates and data experts at the conference knew otherwise. Here are two stories they told about how data can change how we judge people and situations – both socially and legally.

There are many ways environmental organizations can use data to change conversations. The Knight Foundation funded a data-sharing project which bridged divides between environmental justice groups. Projects like this one can yield local stories for both traditional and social media. What chemicals are in your neighborhood’s backyard?

Although the EPA’s approach to reporting potential flooding may seem dry, reports on climate change indicators in the United States can also provide story ideas for journalists. If climate change produces floods or disrupts the growing season, superimposing those maps on maps of crop production could yield interesting results – especially for crops grown in low-lying areas. In some states, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” may be very different in a few years from what it is today.