Friday, April 15, 2011

Computing and Helping Sea Turtles with Social Media

The Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation was held here in San Diego this week. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few hours speaking with someone attending the conference. I have been doing research into computing used in sea turtle conservation work for some time as part of my book project so this was a really nice opportunity to share ideas and compare notes in person.

One of the messages that comes through loud and clear: there is an enormous opportunity for the computing discipline to work hand in hand with environmental groups. There are highly technical computing activities such as the use of GPS technology (tracking animal movement for example) and modeling (projections of complex scenarios and how different factors might affect outcomes) and then there is a sometimes overlooked opportunity for the effective use of social media. We hear about social media playing a critical role in reporting international political events, but we do not hear so much about leveraging social media as a serious and ongoing computing career option.

When the Deep Horizon oil spill occurred last spring, how did the public get their information? Some people listened to television and traditional media. However, many went elsewhere. Scientists of all kinds and other content experts, working round the clock, who had more to say than what fit in a 30 second sound bite used: social networking outlets. For example, last summer a blog maintained by the Sea Turtle Conservancy posted statistics about turtles impacted by the oil spill; the same organization used their website,  Facebook and other online venues to distribute solid data-supported information.

Professional computing skills can contribute enormously to the effective use of social networking. When to post, what to post, how to target the post. In the case of reporting on sea turtle issues this means computer science personnel can use their software engineering skills. These skills include principles of good UI design, and requirements gathering to provide a target audience the information they are interested in, in the most effective way online.

Additional computing skills are needed to build an effective public education and outreach website. html? cascading style sheets? content management system? sharepoint pages? Connections to databases of organized information - how should all that data be stored and revealed to the users through different media? ... There are many ways to build a site and it is critical to understand what approach makes the most sense and how to leverage technical capabilities in alignment with content goals. The biologists know their sea turtles. They know what the critical information is and what actions need to be done, be it with the public, government entities, other organizations and stakeholders.

There is another item worth mentioning. A computer scientist who works with an environmental group such as those supporting sea turtle conservation is most definitely not going to spend her or his life sitting in a cubicle all alone. She (or he) might well find herself (or himself) on a remote beach late at night watching for rare migrating turtles looking to crawl up on a beach to lay eggs. So I learned from my research - travel to interesting locations around the world and immersion in the natural environment come with the job.

Are you a computer scientist who wants to work for an environmental cause? Do you like to travel? Does the idea of getting dirty, muddy or bug bitten sound like not a big deal? This could be your calling.

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