Blogging from the Poles: How We Started A Group Blog (And What It’s Teaching Us)

Paper airplanes in one hand, filled glasses in the other, and a finger on a keyboard, we launched, toasted, and went live with Polar Dispatches – our new group blog about polar science — on an appropriately cold night in January. The logo? A paper airplane departing the icy north for more inhabited parts of our planet, where many decisions that affect the polar regions are taken:

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People start blogs all the time, but for my group, this symbolic moment reflected months of learning, planning, and discussion about what we do, why, and what would we like to share. The idea sparked at the Leopold Leadership training last June and matured over time with a range of input from Leopold Fellows, including posts on this blog.

I had set out with the vague notion that a blog would provide the people I work with (students, postdocs, and colleagues) and me a forum for talking about our science that would be different from the scientific journals we submit papers to. It should be a place to share fieldwork stories, ideas that had yet to mature, and intelligible accounts of the science we engage in. Something that would engage whoever stumbled across it.

What I had not foreseen was how much we would learn just from going through the exercise of setting up the blog. Creating it became a group project, with shared tasks and responsibilities, that, in a microcosm, reflects our vision of how science should progress: through collaborative action aimed at advancing global knowledge over individual achievement. It also became rapidly clear to me that the project was only possible because of the diversity of views we brought to the discussion table.

In a nutshell, here are the steps we took:

Step 1 – Write a blog mission statement

We decided that we needed to tell people what our blog was about and why we were doing it. This led to some soul-searching to answer a pretty basic question: why do we do what we do? In contemplating this we greatly benefited from a Leopold blogpost by Elena Bennett and Chris Buddle (and links therein) on how to draft a mission statement. Each group member was asked to produce a statement of just a few sentences. As we went through these one by one, it was clear that even though there were some commonalities, each one of us had emphasized a different part of what we do. The diversity that emerged was refreshing and only their combination truly conveyed what we do and what drives us.

Here is a “wordle” that best represents our combined mission statements:

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The size of the words reflects how often they appeared relative to the others (we obtained the graphic via wordle). “Polar,” “climate,” and “understand” popped out as emphasis points.

We then distilled the statements into the single statement that appears on the blog:

We are physical scientists who study the high latitude ocean, ice, and atmosphere, as well as the ways each of these interacts with each other. We use innovative methods to collect and analyze data from remote, challenging regions where few or no measurements exist, and use these data, models and theories to unravel the inner workings of the climate system. We engage in rigorous, fundamental research that is attentive to the needs of society. We are driven by scientific curiosity, a sense of wonder and awe for the natural world, and a commitment to document and understand the rapid, ongoing climate change in the polar regions.

This blog is about polar science and unlike our scientific, peer-reviewed papers, is intended to be understandable and accessible by everyone. In it, we tell stories about science—our own and others’. We describe what we know, what we don’t know, how we try to find answers, and how we sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Our goal is to engage and inform people on the science of the polar regions and the gradual accumulation of knowledge that informs national and international policy decisions as well as everyday decisions by people around the world.

Step 2 – Choose a blog name

Everyone proposed at least one name and then we voted. “Polar Dispatches” won by just a few votes over “My Other Car Is A Greenland Fjord,” which will soon be the group’s bike bumper sticker.

Step 3 – Create the cyber infrastructure

With the name chosen, we  swung into the world of cyberspace and bought our web address so it wouldn’t get scooped up by some new drone-operated postal service (or worse, a competitor!). I can’t remember why, but we eventually bought it through a site called Hover. The options for buying site names and the reviews of these options can keep you busy for days. We grabbed the Twitter name, too (@polardispatches). Next, we chose a blog platform. The two main ones are WordPress and Blogger. After some discussion by the subgroup that had already stepped into the 21st century (which excluded me), we picked WordPress. If in doubt, ask someone younger.

Step 4 – Create the logo

I have already given away what our logo is, but this too was a collective exercise. After we came up with a plan, the graphics folks at my institution helped with design.

Step 5 – Write the rules

We set the following editorial standards:

  • What can we blog about? This is a science-based blog where policy discussions have to be science-based (that musk-ox burger recipe will have to wait).
  • How often?  Once a week. After a slow start, followed by a few threats, we seem to be on a roll…
  • Advertise? Tweet, retweet, tweet. We found that if we tweet something back and forth among ourselves a few times, eventually someone else picks it up.
  • Who? Well, there are about 10 of us, and if we add some guests, that comes to 4-5 posts per person per year.

Step 6 – Set the editorial staffing

Editors rotate, and I read everything (so that I still have a job after each post). Help from our institution’s communication guru has been essential.

Seven posts later, here we are. There is, of course, the question of who will actually read them. We are tracking visitors and their numbers have been growing. But then again, most views are likely from our extended families. To a large extent, the achievement is not so much in becoming popular but in the learning that both developing the blog and writing for it has involved. It has turned into an amazing tool for practicing science communication, for coming together as a group, for weighing the implications and consequences of what we write, and above all for sharing that sense of wonder for the natural world that drives us.

Fiamma Straneo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a tenured associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For the latest from “Polar Dispatches,” subscribe here or follow @polardispatches on Twitter. Follow Fiamma @fstraneo.

Lessons from the Blogosphere: Rewards and Challenges

EUS_screenshotIn my last post, I wrote about why I blog and how I do it. Here are a few observations and reflections on rewards and challenges I’ve experienced in writing my blog, Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles, over the past two and a half years.

Finding My Voice and Reaching My Audience

We live in a political crisis in Mexico. Corruption and conflicts of interest between construction companies and decision-makers are common. Exposés of these practices, even those supported by videos and other documentation, are merely daily scandals that succumb to other scandals. They haven’t produced any structural change or even a legal process for redress.

Consequently, it is impossible to take a neutral approach in talking about ecosystem management within Mexico City, particularly when there is intense economic pressure to urbanize the last natural areas. My experience is that an isolated scientific approach on an issue in which there are many political and economic interests is ignored and misused. It is not possible to generate information and make statements as if scientists were objective analyzers working from the outside. This is why some of the posts published on Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles navigate from solely scientific information to statements about ecological management in cities. This relationship between political statements and academic explanations is dangerous, because it is difficult for the public to separate one focus from the other. I don´t know whether this has affected my credibility as a scientist. But I still think it worth the risk, considering the urban-ecological interaction we are facing now. As a scientist I generate information that can be used for policy making. I have a responsibility to share it with society so that everybody understands the costs and benefits of each action.

Blogging has connected me with different stakeholders in the city and within my university in new ways. It has led to meetings with members of local government, who asked my opinion about management of the city’s wetland, Xochimilco; with conservationists who wanted to discuss strategies for restoring a river; with academics from other fields (including an urbanist, an economist, and an engineer); and with the federal government. The only sector that has not been interested seems to be the construction industry.

Xochimilco

Xochimilco

Observations and Reflections

My blog gets about 1100 hits per month. In tracking its performance, I’ve learned that posts with strong statements about environmental management are read more than those with outstanding scientific information. A mix of science and opinion seems to work in inspiring people from different fields to read about ecology.

Nevertheless, the post with the most hits on my blog — it received close to 10,000 in 15 days — is about police repression of a peaceful demonstration that took place in front of my house. This is not a post about ecology or environmental management, but a post showing how the local government violates human rights of people who disagree with its environmental policy. That post was the only way of responding the local government’s physical aggression toward me, my wife, and our colleagues, and it helped to show the city other views besides the official ones.

After 61 posts in two and a half years it also is clear that a love of writing is the engine of blogging. My blog has given me many academic, social, and political satisfactions, but what I enjoy most about it is writing about complex systems. It naturally fits into my schedule in one way or another, and I don’t mind writing posts on Sunday afternoons (as I am doing this one). Unless I loved it, other activities would always come first, and I would never have time to write a sentence.

Luis Zambrano, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor at the Instituto de Biología at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He now directs the Reserva Ecológica del Pedregal de San Ángel, a volcanic reserve within the main campus of the University. Follow him on Twitter at @ZambranoAxolote.

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Leopold Leadership 3.0 will be back in early January after a holiday break.

Lessons from the Blogosphere: An Ecologist’s Perspective

Why I Blog 

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Mexico City’s new highway

It is impossible to explain in 140 characters the interactions and unexpected results happening in complex urban ecosystems. That’s what I thought when I was deciding whether to open a Twitter account or start a blog (after some months I did both). My initial goal in using social media was to generate discussion about ecology with a public that only thinks about nature when it is watching the Discovery Channel. But the final trigger for starting my blog, Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles, was the construction of a highway that destroyed the last remaining lowland woods in western Mexico City.

Being against a highway was counterintuitive in a society that considers any construction progress. Many friends asked me why I opposed it. Congestion in Mexico City has been getting steadily worse: in only one decade the average speed of cars dropped from 28 km/h to 18 km/h. This is not surprising, given that the number of cars increases by 250,000 every year.

The “driver-class,” which accounts for only 20% of Mexico City’s population but is very powerful, saw the highway as a good solution to the traffic problem. There seemed to be no consideration of its effect on urban ecology – even among those in charge of environment. The local Minister of Environment, upset about our defense of the lowland woods, frequently made statements to the press such as “they [opponents of the project] consider these areas as important as the Amazonian rain forest.”

Trees felled during construction

The highway obliterated many large trees

I used to spend hours explaining how the highway would exacerbate water scarcity (Mexico City’s main water supply is an aquifer that is overexploited 100%, and the highway will expand urbanization on infiltration areas) and flooding (the highway changed the course of two rivers and increased the speed of the water to the lowlands during storms). I also pointed out that it wouldn’t solve the traffic problem, because it creates incentives to use cars (a phenomenon known as “induced traffic”).

In these discussions I found that people from Mexico City did not consider themselves to be part of an ecosystem. As a society we think that the city is isolated from nature. If we think of nature at all, it’s as a frightening force that inundates large lowland areas during big storms. Our response is to fight back with technology and concrete, isolating us further from nature. Conservation must be done only in areas far away from the cities…. and from Mexico, thereby removing us from our responsibility for the environment.

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City park condemned for highway construction

I realized that there needed to be a public conversation to address these assumptions. I decided to start a blog, with the goal of convincing people that we live in a complex, dynamic ecosystem — and that in Mexico City, this ecosystem is a lake.

Blogging for Systemic Change: A Few Simple Rules

In working toward my goal of public engagement, I start from the premise that anyone should be able to read Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles. I avoid technical words and illustrate complex concepts with examples that are easy to understand. Looking to re-connect people with nature, I write about how many rivers there are in the city; how these rivers can be restored; why trees are important for the quality of life; which types of animals (besides dogs, cats and pigeons) live in the city (with an emphasis on the amphibian I work with, the axolotl, which is endemic in the south part of Mexico City); and how ecosystems (including urban ecosystems) work in a nonlinear way. Because ecosystem dynamics are not isolated from human activities, I also explore concepts such as socio-ecosystem. Policymakers play an important role in these systems, since their decisions may change the quality of life of people for decades.

Although I don’t have a strict publication schedule, I adhere to some basic editorial standards designed to maintain readership. For example:

  • There are at least 15 days between posts
  • Posts are between 700 and 1000 words
  • Longer posts are divided in two
  • Most posts have at least one image to illustrate a key idea
  • I only delete readers’ comments if they are sexist, racist, or particularly aggressive
  • After publishing a new post, I promote it over the next few days via Twitter, Facebook, and an email list. Each channel reaches a different audience.

These are a few of the practices I’ve developed as an ecologist who blogs. In my next post, I’ll share what I’ve learned from blogging and reflect on rewards and challenges that may be of interest to other researchers who are thinking about starting a blog.

Luis Zambrano, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor at the Institute of Biology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He now directs the Reserva Ecológica del Pedregal de San Ángel, a volcanic reserve within the main campus of the University. Follow him on Twitter at @ZambranoAxolote.

7 tidbits for better blogging

800px-Kupfer_NuggetI don’t claim to be the master of effective blogging. I have read a bit about it and have experimented with my own blog. I’ve thought about how various wisdoms apply to my goals. I’ve received some personal advice. Here is my effort to reproject for “Leopoldian” aims a recent nugget I received[1]. The below applies more so to venues for continual blogging rather than that special invitation to write the “Great American Blogpost.”

#1. Strike while the iron is hot.          You have an idea. Recording that idea at that moment is paramount (via mobile device, computer, cocktail napkin or Moleskin). “Mental notes” vanish and you cannot remember why you cared so much about your idea. Drafting an outline or a straw person argument helps. Better yet, record the first “hook” or question that you’ll focus on.

#2. Let it sit, take it in stages.          Some people have the gift of writing high quality stuff at first blush—ideas pour out of a can of Coors with one of those special ‘shotgun’ technologies (yes, I miss walking the streets of Boulder, Colorado). Then there’s the rest of us. Jot a draft. Return to it in the afternoon or the next day. This provides fresh eyes, fresh perspective, and time to let your argument meddle.

#3. Figures are more likely to go viral.          Posts with great graphics fare better on the Internet than text only. Finding time to locate the perfect photo that illustrates your idea is more valuable than we think. If you can produce a nifty chart, map, or infographic—one that is really golden—your post will get re-tweeted all through the Internet-o-sphere.

#4. Keep it simple.          Everything is connected. Attributes about the environment and cities more so. You begin by talking about fire hydrant color palettes, and end up discussing the national debt, different asphalt mixes, and climate change. It’s often better to make one or two simple points per post. That’s it. There’ll be plenty of time to elaborate later in your next post.

#5. Lists have currency.          Like this one. They lure people to keep reading. This can obviously be abused. There are ways of making lists without being so apparent. Headings, as well, help the reader organize your content. I use both here.

#6. Write to your reader.          Yes, everyone says “know your audience!” What if you don’t really know? Targeting a specific person—someone who is representative of the audience you want to reach—helps pinpoint the argument, the evidence, and the tenor. My colleague just told me that she is specifically writing her next book to Robert Goldman—her father who is a really sharp guy, an avid reader, but knows little of her field. That is a book. Yours is a blog post, so the person can vary.

#7. Cut it short.          Like it or not, I’ve learned people don’t read much past about 1000 words; I have convinced myself that ~750 words is a good threshold (this post is 572). If it’s getting long, separate it into a three part series; tell the reader it is part two of three. Unless you are really convinced you have the right venue, writing that “Great American Blogpost” might fall on deaf ears.


[1] The original sage wisdom was received from Bill Lindeke, board member and the one who rallies the herd for www.streets.mn. Similar tidbits are reprojected here.

To write a blog post, switch gears

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Today, during a webinar with the 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows, a question came up about how to write for a blog. Given that blogs differ greatly in purpose, length, and style from writing for academic research, it can seem daunting to sit down and write a post. How do you switch gears to present an idea for a blog audience?

Here are two tips for beating “blogger’s block.”

1. Set the scene. Imagine having a conversation with a reader of the blog you’re writing for. If it’s Leopold 3.0, for example, think of another Leopold fellow you’d like to chat with. Who is it? Where are you? On your way into a meeting? Grabbing your morning coffee? Running into each other at the airport? Your fellow fellow asks you something about your Leopold experience — how you’re using your training, what you still find helpful, what stuck with you. How would you answer? The content would make a great blog post. Try this technique as you write for other blogs, too.

2. Use templates. Bloggers have developed “recipes” over time for posts that attract readers and inspire sharing. Here are a few types, with examples of posts from Leopold 3.0 based on each one:

  • Personal reflection/insight about a tool or approach you’ve tried (or adapted) from your Leopold training
  • “How-to” guide about implementing a Leopold practice you use
  • Photo with a caption or short paragraph about something you’re working on related to your Leopold experience
  • List of your favorite resources related to a Leopold practice or concept
  • Best tips for doing something

What are your best tips for beating “blogger’s block”? Share them in a comment.

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program. Follow her on Twitter (@PamSturner).