Skip directly to content

Blog Feed

Ray Dearborn's picture

Upwell fellows take the data reigns

on April 29, 2014 - 12:21pm

Upwell is expanding its Big Listening practice, to apply what we've learned measuring and tracking ocean conversations to other social change movements. To meet this need, Upwell established a Fellows program for accomplished, mid-career professionals. Upwell Fellows work directly with senior staff on core Upwell research projects, while building social media analytics and conversation mapping skills. We aim to grow capacity in the movements we work in, and the fellowship program allows Upwell to complete critical research while growing sector capacity by leveling up key individuals.

We're thrilled to have Ted Fickes and Kathryn Jaller joining us as Upwell fellows. They've already been working with us for about a month, and each will be cataloguing their experience to share. Check out the first blog post from Ted and Kathy to learn a bit about what they're learning, asking, and developing with us. 

Ted Fickes

Upwell Fellow

Ted Fickes has worked at the intersection of digital communications, on the ground organizing, public policy and nonprofit management since the mid-1990s. Ted served as Development Director for organizations in Denver and Chicago, put together one of the nation's first nonprofit technology circuit rider programs, founded Colorado Conservation Voters, and started his first consulting firm in 2002 to help progressive nonprofits and campaigns better communicate online. From 2006 to 2011, Ted managed online campaigns and digital strategy for The Wilderness Society. Ted started Bright+3 in 2011 to develop and test people-focused campaign and content strategies with innovative nonprofits, startups and campaigns. Bright+3 has helped incubate new publishing models and content strategies with a focus on how data can be used to track and inform the strength of communications across networks. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Ted is also an advisor to Social Movement Technologies and Web of Change.

Kathryn Jaller

Upwell Fellow

Kathryn is a museum technologist and content strategist. She leads digital publishing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and has spoken widely on the growth of social media in cultural institutions, including at South by Southwest. She founded the "Social Media Superfriends," a consortium of Bay Area social media practitioners, and her work has been featured in The New York Times. She is also an artist who makes things, sometimes inspired by science. Find her latest experiments on Twitter.

Ray Dearborn's picture

Introducing Andrew Thaler, our new Tide Report writer!

on April 28, 2014 - 2:42pm

Earlier this year, we announced that Upwell was so busy that we needed some extra hands. This week we'll be introducing some of the awesome fantastic people who've joined the Upwell crew. 

Our signature ocean newsletter, The Tide Report, needed an ocean-loving, witty science nerd to take the writing reigns. We are thrilled and blessed that Andrew David Thaler, of Southern Fried Science fame, has joined us as a Tide Report writer. Not only is he a marine science aficionado, but he's also a master of the legendary Eastern Carolina Barbecue - a skill he developed from spending over a decade living in rural North Carolina before moving to the Bay Area this year. 

Andrew makes some mean barbecue pork. 

Andrew David Thaler

Andrew is a deep-sea ecologist and population geneticist, who has worked in ocean conservation for the last 8 years. He has published broadly on deep-sea conservation, marine policy, and science/environmental communication. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Southern Fried Science, one of the most widely read marine science and conservation blog in the English language.You can find him on Twitter and Google+ or check out his most recent outreach project, #DrownYourTown.

Matt Fitzgerald's picture

A Social Labs Revolution in the Making

on March 21, 2014 - 5:01pm

Planning is killing us and prototyping will save us 
- that's the provocative premise of a new book from Zaid Hassan, cofounder of Reos, and host to a small but mighty group of activists, facilitators, designers and social entrepreneurs that I joined earlier this month for a workshop at the Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College. 

As a nonprofit consultant and participant in over a dozen strategic planning processes, I've seen the limitations of traditional planning approaches first-hand. The difficulties are confounded when the planning centers on navigating situations or challenges of complexity, where the actions undertaken will inevitably produce reactions from multiple stakeholders and result in a fundamentally new situation.

The startup community, by and large, gets this. The social sector - or at least the funding institutions within the social sector - mostly does not. 

For all the talk and activity around Lean Impact, most of the innovation-focussed philanthropic resources are still being passed out to plans constructed within a traditional planning paradigm. Even when the focus is on allegedly on the outcomes, the desire for accountability often results in the imposition of a planning methodology that values presumptive specificity over messy reality (#imho).

Furthermore, the societal challenges we face today are incredibly complex. From climate change to global poverty, from infectious diseases to cyber conflict, the world has never been more interconnected and never been more unsuited to taking on those challenges within a planning paradigm. What are some alternatives?

Hassan laid out a blueprint for what he calls Social Labs - interdisciplinary teams empowered to explore a portfolio of proposed solutions to a particular social or environmental challenge. They do this not by writing white papers or convening blue-ribbon panels, but rather by doing - by working to prototype the implementation of promising ideas in 30- or 60-day sprints. This approach, much like Upwell's own MVC (minimum viable campaign) model of campaigning, draws heavily from agile software development and recognizes that only by getting out of the building (or conference hall) can you test your ideas with real fidelity.

Here's a description in his own words: [UPDATE: the video embed has gone astray - here's Zaid on YouTube]

If you know you're almost inevitably going to fail, then the point is to learn from failure as quickly as possible in order to move forward. Hassan and Reos have brought forward a truly promising approach to big, thorny, complex problems.

I'll be watching their progress with interest, but more importantly with my sleeves rolled up. 


Matt Fitzgerald's picture

What's In Your Bukkit? Bounding An Issue for Big Listening

on January 31, 2014 - 4:22pm

Here on the good ship Upwell we're often asked to help folks think through what Big Listening for their cause or issue might look like. This raises some intriguing questions about what their cause or issue is - what's in and what's out of their particular mental model for that thing. Call it a bukkit, m'kay?

What's in the LOLRUS's bukkit? Most likely bivalves.

Measuring something requires you to define it. The trick in measuring a conversation is that conversations change over time as participants engage in dialogue. And as conversations dynamically evolve over time, so too do the methods of expression (i.e. terminology, imagery, metaphors, etc.), the composition of participants, and the accompanying platforms. Much like species evolution, these changes are not always in a direction that we perceive to be fruitful. Evolution can lead to progress just as it can lead to dead-ends or fragmentation. Because of this, no conversational “listening” can ever be exhaustive (as some elements of the conversation will always be overlooked), nor can it be perfectly accurate (as noise will always creep in).

In bounding an issue for the purpose of (big) listening to it, we begin by developing a conceptual framework. For the purposes of explanation, let’s imagine our topic is marine debris a.k.a. trash in the ocean.

We would begin by outlining the conceptual and temporal boundaries of analysis for marine debris. The temporal aspect is important because a keyword group developed for one time period may lose significant accuracy (and utility) when applied to another period. For the conceptual outlines we often make use of a mind map such as the one for ocean acidification shown below.

For marine debris the concept map would include items such as marine trash, the pacific gyre, marine plastics, great pacific garbage patch, seaplex (minus exclusions for the botanical shampoo of the same name), albatross AND plastic. The concept map would also include people, campaigns, expeditions and organizations such as Miriam Goldstein (a marine debris expert), The Trash Free Seas Alliance, the Plastiki, and Seaplex.

The concept map becomes a design artifact for further conversations about the conversation. Although we sometimes shortcut this process in the interests of time, we refine the map through a series of discussions and exchanges with subject matter experts and knowledgeable people in the industry or industries at play. It's worth noting that since we're interested in public conversations, speaking only with the issue wonks can be counter-productive, since their language is often arcane and infrequently used within the culture at large. The map for Oceans concepts (shown above) actually had to be dramatically revised once we realized it was full of science jargon and lacking anything to do with Mermaids, little or otherwise.

Hipster Ariel was in your bukkit before it was cool.

Once we have a solid map of the conversation, we turn the map into a series of keywords - but that's a topic for another day. So if you're thinking about what Big Listening for your issue might look like, consider thinking of a bukkit. What's innit?

Ray Dearborn's picture

Why Did "The Ocean is Broken" Go Viral?

on November 13, 2013 - 3:18pm

In late October, we saw a big, sustained spike in online attention to an article that came out in the Newcastle Herald, entitled “The Ocean is Broken.” The story chronicles ocean yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen’s experience retracing a trans-ocean journey he had sailed 10 years ago, and his shock at the profound decline he saw in sea life and ocean health. According to the Herald, the article “smashed Fairfax Regional Media records.” The article, definitively lacking hard science, clearly struck a chord with readers worldwide, and Macfadyen is now fielding requests for interviews, letters from concerned citizens, and offers from documentary filmmakers to help tell his story.

Our community of ocean lovers and ocean communicators was intrigued, so we decided to don our Upwell analysis hats and put our Big Listening tools to the test, to answer a couple key questions. First: Why did this story, above all the others that talk about ocean health, go so big? And second: What can Team Ocean learn and apply to our work?

The Numbers

"The Ocean is Broken" has been shared over 115,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and is still being shared now, a month after it was originally published. In fact, in just the last week, the story has been shared between 40-80 times per day. 

The story was first shared midday in the UK on October 18 (early am in the US), but didn’t achieve real momentum until it was shared by Caitlin Moran on Twitter on October 20. The British media personality and author has 470,000 followers on Twitter, and is known for her humorous (and often NSFW) tweets and her high level of engagement with her followers.

Several other Twitter "celebrities," including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, shared the story but it seems this tweet was what tipped the initial scales.

The story did exceptionally well on Facebook, with over 100,000 shares, nearly 100,000 comments, and over 85,000 likes, heavily overshadowing numbers on Twitter. (Source: SharedCount)

The shape of the “spike” is much wider than similar stories would be. This means there was sustained volume over several days, and the story had legs for much longer than 24 hours. Indeed, Twitter conversation levels in the past week have remained in the 40-80 mentions per day level. (Source: Topsy Pro)

A story with real legs: Twitter mentions of “The Ocean is Broken” Oct 17-Nov 13.

It's a human interest story. 

The data above tell only part of the story. The heart of the story lies in understanding why the initial people who read "The Ocean is Broken" decided to proactively share it with their friends, followers, readers and fans. With articles coming out every week that tell us oceans are hurting, why did this one go viral?

One thing that's important to distinguish is that this is not a science story, or an environmental story. It is a human interest story. The author, Greg Ray, was not writing an article about ocean health. He was recounting and sharing the powerful personal anecdotes of Ian Macfadyen.

When we, as conservationists and scientists, want to connect people to an issue we find important, such storytelling is a powerful tool. A story can bring a wonky issue to life. Take, for instance, the health care reform law (Obamacare). Journalists, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies are relying on storytelling to connect with people. A story about how someone who had been previously denied health coverage due to a pre-existing condition is much more interesting than an article detailing all the changes in the new law. 

Scientists are often trained out of including narrative or anecdotes in their writing, but this is a reminder that that reluctance to get personal can come with a cost. 

Not only did "The Ocean is Broken" tell a story, it was able to incite emotion. With Radian6, we were able to get a better understanding of people's reactions to the article, en masse. The below three word clouds represent the three days that saw the highest volume of sharing. 

Note that the emotive words are closely related: nightmare, frighteningly, terrifying, disturbing. With lower frequency we see words like sad and depressing. While positive emotions tend to spur social sharing at a higher rate than negative emotions overall, it is also the higher energy emotions that spur sharing. Fear is a higher energy emotion than sadness. The language used in the article, from the very beginning paragraphs, is clearly meant to evoke these nightmarish fears:

The wind still whipped the sails and whistled in the rigging. The waves still sloshed against the fibreglass hull.
And there were plenty of other noises: muffled thuds and bumps and scrapes as the boat knocked against pieces of debris.

The article is also written for the web: short paragraphs that make scanning easy, a powerful and personal banner image to catch the reader's attention, and a confident and potentially controversial title that makes the reader want to learn more. "Broken" isn't a word we're used to hearing in the context of the ocean - it's poetic, symbolic, and new to our lexicon. And if someone saw the phrase "the ocean is broken" in a tweet, there's a good chance they might have hit Retweet without even reading the article because they agreed with the headline so strongly (admit it: you've done the same thing.).

There's certainly more to learn from this story - tell us your thoughts in the comments.