Social Media in International Development Podcast: Bill Anderson

Bill Anderson
As I noted earlier, I’m starting to record a set of podcasts about the role of social media in international development. (That’s a long title, so for the future, the title slug will be  Social Media in Intl. Dev: Podcast with NAME.)

Today’s podcast is with William (Bill) Anderson and  focuses on the science and research aspect of international development. This fascinates me because of the work I do for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, and also a UN organization). Our conversation was so interesting to me that I did two. The second one is on Twitter and science. That will come out in a few days.

First, a little bit about Bill

I know Bill from a number of contexts, but most near and dear to my heart has been conversations about conflict online and things we have tagged “usthem.” But Bill is also an engineer and scientist with a keen eye on the role of technology. Here is his bio:

William L. (Bill) Anderson is a cofounder of Praxis101, a consultancy that focuses on participatory, user-centered information systems design, software engineering practice innovation, and organizational learning. Before founding Praxis101 Bill worked for Xerox Corporation in distributed system architecture, technology strategy, and advanced
product development. He pioneered co-development and customer collaboration on one of the first digital libraries, a joint project  between Cornell University and Xerox known as the CLASS project ( He has published papers on digital library product development, participatory design of product prototypes, and software development practices and tools. Prior to Xerox, he worked in the telecom, image management, and pharmaceutical industries. Most recently he has been working on policy issues on long-term access to scientific and technical data.

Bill is an Associate Editor for the CODATA Data Science Journal   (, and Co-chair of the InterAcademy Panel Task Group on Digital Knowledge Resources in Developing Countries ( He recently ended an eight year term as a member of the U.S. National Committee for the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA: and as Co-chair of the CODATA Task Group on Preservation of and Access to Scientific and Technical Data in Developing Countries.

The Podcast:How are scientists using social media?

podcast-logo Bill Anderson on Social Media, Science and the Public Interest (11:37 minutes)

Resources and Links from Podcast

Text Summary of Podcast

You have been working with scientists around sharing scientific and technical data. What role do you see for social media in this work?
That’s kind of a big question. It is interesting. Today there is a part of the big social internet push for transparency that has moved to making data transparent — scientific and technical and government data.

There is a lot of talk, energy and action in the air and on the ground to make data available. The role for social media that I’ve seen is the new capabilities with the internet in the last 20 years –social media provides low cost easy way for 2 things:

1. get the word out about data you have ready to release, reports, experimental results
2. receive feedback, formal and informal about what has been put out

It doesnt matter if you are individual scientist, agency or government body.

Are people using it?
Ican only see a small part, but researchers have been blogging, using wikis, microblogging, using Friendfeed (an aggregator) to carry ourt a vast range of informal distributed conversations about research initiatives and policies. This year the second annual Science Online conference — going on sometime in 2010 ( There is one in 2009. ( )

Any formal use?
There’s the public library of sciences, an open access scientific publisher around for 4-5 years who have become a premier publisher of scientific research. They just started a project with one of their Journals PLOS1 ( where articles are submitted, given a light review and editing to make sure of reasonable content, readable and they are doing an experiment allowing an open crowd reviewing of these kinds of articles. To review you have to sign up with a valid email address. Experiment with what happens if we don’t gather experts to vet a paper and just put it out there. What kind of review and citation practices emerge.

You have been working with distributed groups of scientists. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities concerning the use of social media in this work?

The biggest challenge is the one we are all familiar with: changing established work practices and customs. I was thinking about this – many of us as individuals, not just scientists, are quite adventurous, but when we get together in organizations and institutions, as an organized body we are very resistant to getting anything to change. It is part of being human. An opportunity to figure out. Once an institution has a way of getting things done and way of interacting and making decisions, it is difficult to change that. The other specific issue with social media is the challenge of being open and public with work in progress and informal conversation

Say more about sharing publicly one’s work in progress.
More scientists are trying “open notebook science.” One of the key proponents, Jean-Claude Bradley (, chemist at Drexel. He has been carrying our research as it is happening on an open notebook wiki. Data, mistakes, what didn’t work. That is unusual. Most people don’t show that. You always keep your mistakes in your notebook as source of insight, but people don’t often do that in public.

What are the risks of doing it in public?
The professional risk of someone else taking your idea. People are worried about that. we need to take that worry seriously. The other part, speaking as someone who has lived in the US my entire life (educated, worked) it is very difficult, especially as an established professional, to admit you don’t know something. I do believe people in research understand that learning includes mistakes and doing that in a public way is a challenge. We don’t know what to do about this.

So that first challenge has to do with being familiar with new ways of working. The second has to do with being able to keep up with the proliferation of tools and how to use them effectively. New things keep happening, new things are generated every day. I’ve been blogging for a while and it took a while. It takes time, there is a bit of an overhead.

An example about working with new tools is wikis. It is a kind of technology that I call “people sorters.” People either like to use them or they don’t. While they provide many capabilities, they are quite cumbersome to use. The effort to change what you do and learn a new set of tools to do what you know how to do is a challenge is extra overhead.

Is it worth it?
I’m the kind of person who likes to do that (figure it out). It is a cost, but it has been worth it for me. Until the technology is built easier to use and learn, it is going to be difficult. Or until we have more experience and they aren’t so daunting.

What are the big challenges scientists working in the public interest face and how can social media help? Low hanging fruit?

Right now the biggest challenge for science today is its communication with the public. Scientists communicate with each other fairly well. What’s required is the general public to understand what the practice of science is, what scientists do and how they look at the world and make sense of things. And communicate how that works in solving the health, environment, crime social problems we have to deal with. Being more open is better. I don’t see why someone in the general public can’t be given access to research literature. You don’t necessarily need a PhD to read a paper. Being open and being able to interact with people when they have questions. Social media allows us to communicate quickly, at low cost and interactively with comments and replies. The opportunity is here to make a change in how the whole conversation happens. Social media ARE the lowest hanging fruit. A fast and easy way to communicate.

What have you noticed about scientists and science organizations using microblogging tools like Twitter?
Two things. When I was first involved with Twitter I followed my friends. Then I started to notice that some of the organizations that I work with in my NGO work with science and data were twittering. So I migrated who I followed to individuals and organization in science that give good examples about how to use something like Twitter to get information out without overwhelming people. When the Mars rover was out on Mars and operational, the people in the project set up a Twitter account and had the rover twittering. “Today I’m going to dig in the dirt. I love this job.” One of the most wonderful uses of twitter to provide information about what is happening and putting an informal face on sophisticated engineering and scientificresearch.

Why is it important to make science accessible and available to the public?
It makes it available to almost anyone. You can be six years old or 86. You can still wow – I’m following a robot! That’s cool. (Mars Rover on Twitter:

How does that change science?
It makes it available. That’s important because without science we aren’t going to be able to get ourselves through the 21st century as a species. That’s what I believe. So second we have to make it accessible and understandable to everyone for learning or even contributing. If the general public were much more aware about how science works, what it produces, what it does, they might have better interaction with their own elected officials. That is my own personal view. I also think it is kind of fun.

7 thoughts on “Social Media in International Development Podcast: Bill Anderson”

  1. In my area (physics) quite a bit of outreach to the public is being done with extremely well written blogs.

    PLoS is wonderful for the domains it covers. Much of this is their review process (which doesn’t have much to do with social media, but is well ahead of the conventional journals). Some of their journals are very accessible to the public.

    Physics has, which has been running for over 20 years and is wonderful for document access.

    Physics tends not to be accessible to the public as a fair amount of background is required to understand the papers. There is quite a bit of noise and confusion generated by people who don’t understand what is going on and/or have agendas (this is also true in the public discussions of climate change). It is an interesting problem and a big time waster for most scientists who get involved in these arguments. But it highlights other issues that need addressing – such as the poor level of science education in the US.

    There are debates about how to make science accessible – some argue that putting it in the publics face – the gee whiz – is the way to go and others argue that teaching what is involved and how the scientific method works is more important. I’m more interested in the later. There is a lot of the former in social media, as well as old style broadcast media, now, but the potential for doing the later exists and needs to be exploited.

    On open data and the real time open lab – it might work in some domains, but understanding failure in context with those you are working with is an important part of the learning process. Ultimately documenting that may be important if it isn’t a big time synch, but making the data and early playgrounds constantly available in an informative fashion strikes me as counterproductive. It would be like doing the same with art or learning an instrument or writing. Some bits are important, but there is a lot of noise if you don’t have the local context.

  2. I should add that some really interesting work is being done in areas of science where amateur science links with mainstream science. Some areas of biology and astronomy are great examples of this – places where have large numbers of very careful observers makes studies practical.

    The sharing of information and eduction has changed dramatically. Citizen science is alive and growing!

  3. Steve, I think you are getting down to the “nubbins” of some of these issues, especially as they related to international agricultural development research. Nations and foundations are pouring millions and millions into research to try and reduce hunger and poverty (through food and the livelihoods centered around the production and selling of food in countries around the world.)

    We have what starts out as essentially public good, going into a more traditional research setting which has been mostly rewarded through “publish or perish” reward systems.

    How do we provide the optimum environment or context for the research, but then free the data and research results to address that desired public good, especially when most of the funding is in essense, public? What has to change?

    Some of the issues that I’ve heard put on the table include:

    • Better modes of data attribution so that scientists feel more comfortable releasing data and results earlier, more often and not letting data, especially raw data that they will likely never be able to analyse, out to others to use.
    • Revise reward systems to reward not only peer reviewed publishing, but quality of data streams, uptake of data streams, etc (which can be significantly aided by social media and other technologies. I think the term social media may be significantly inadequate here.) I think the trust issue is very much part of this. But that also plays into the institutional cultures and the overall environment of international development which is very competitive because of funding constraints.
    • Put time limits on the length of time raw data that is publicly funded can be withheld from wider distribution (i.e. after 2 years, all data funded by project X will b released, regardless of the state of the research publication, etc.)
    • Continue to improve data sharing standards and practices to simply make it EASIER (which requires moving past a lot of “it’s not good enough if we didn’t design it” which has both factual basis, but also bias.)
    • Measure and reward UPTAKE of research results. This puts the whole monitoring and evaluation practice on its head – as well as funding priorities. It may not ever wash.

    What is reasonable? What might work? What might dramatically improve the landscape for international development based research? Any scientific research? Should there be a difference?

  4. The process of doing science is extremely messy when viewed on a short time scale, but the scientific method is one of the greatest inventions of all time. There are many ways optimizations can be done within various communities of practice. I’m amazed at how closed some medical and agricultural research is compared to fundamental physics. In fact a lot of applied research is more closed (when viewed on a short time scale as well as how intellectual property is dealt with) than basic research.

    Shortening embargos on publicly funded data is a good thing, but one has to be careful about picking the right length of time. In the astronomy community it is generally a year – which works out fine. In some areas, genetically modified crops – there is no openness at all and that has to change. Many scientists believe that practice, by definition, means it isn’t real science.

  5. Thank you so much for this excellent podcast. I should thank you twice – for mentioning PLOs (where I work) and ScienceOnline conferences (which I organize). Just a little correction – the 2010 conference will be the 4th (not the 2nd) annual conference: do you think you can make it to NC in January?

  6. Also, the “light peer-review” applies to PLoS Currents, not PLOS ONE.

    PLoS ONE has a stringent and tough peer-review (although you are correct that “sexiness” and media-worthiness of manuscripts is not evaluated by reviewers).

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