Dr Silvia Lanati is Communications, Public Engagement and Events Manager for the Administrative Data Research Centre for England, part of the ESRC-funded ADRN, at the University of Southampton.
In this piece she gives some tips on using creativity to engage the public at science festivals.
Data science is a cornerstone of social science research. It can help us to see how communities develop with time and understand their changing needs, and the research contributes to the evidence that policymakers use to benefit society.
However, data science is not an easy topic to engage the public with at large science festivals. Being surrounded by engineers, chemists and biologists, competition can be really tough. Their research is often fascinating ‘by nature’ – just think about robotics, electronics, extreme building or chemical and biochemical reactions – so it is sometimes a real challenge for data scientists to stand out of the crowd. And with science festivals reaching up to few hundred expositors, attention spans can easily start to drop within the first hour, making visitors more selective in the stands they approach. This is why creativity is the key element that helps us to inject that ‘X factor’ to make data science research stand out.
Before getting started
These are four major points to keep in mind:
- Learn about your target audience – eg read comments on social media under posts that talk about your topic. What do people get right/wrong? What are they confused/concerned by?
- Choose one key message (and a few supporting messages that work as pillars to support your overarching one)
- Decide the best activity to convey your message
- Make sure your material is checked by someone who has no experience in your field or has no prior scientific knowledge.
Harness the power of the five senses
Touch: A hands-on activity is a must if you want people to have a first-hand experience in being a data scientist! Encourage people to spot data errors or answer questions about an imaginary population. Use different materials that can trigger different sensations or give depth to your story.
Hearing: There is not so much to experiment on – happy to be proven wrong! – but storytelling can definitely give you the edge in making a spoken piece become memorable (and relatable!).
Taste: Sweets are a common hook to get people interested in talking to you – why not use them as part of your activity? Sweets come in different types and flavours, which gives plenty of food for thought!
Smell: This is a tough one to use in our case, but it can have a similar effect to sweets if it is used wisely to create a ‘sense-driven’ memory.
Finally, sight: A powerful sense in making most experiences really memorable. Use a simple but colourful palette (perhaps based on your branding logo) and try to make a visual impact. Think a bit quirky and different to make it striking and captivating. Photography, infographics and art can be merged in a unique combination to give sense and purpose to your data research story. You can create powerful animated slides, video projections, stunning pull-out banners, one-of-a-kind DIY pieces and more. Use symmetries, different forms and shapes. Recall famous pieces of art, movie scenes, stores, classrooms and so on. There is no limit to the imagination, other than the one we create ourselves.
Rewards and evaluations
Creativity in all the forms expressed above can become really handy for two of the most important parts of the public engagement process at festivals: rewarding and evaluation.
Rewards can help in winning over the most sceptical visitors, encouraging them to come to your stand. A league challenge with a prize is a good method, in particular for young people, and it keeps traffic flowing. For adults, merchandise works very well. Children love stickers and hands-on activities. Stickers in particular are great promotional material on-site and excellent conversation starters off-site.
Finally, a good activity requires measurement of engagement success. People at festivals tend to be happy to talk but, unless invited to do so, they will not leave feedback or ask for further information. Here are a couple of ideas on how to get some material: You could design an activity to help you count the number of people coming to your stand. Alternatively prepare a chart with multiple choices to fill in with stickers, or a book for asking questions and leaving feedback; and encourage people to do so.
Putting it all together
Here is how we embedded creativity at the Administrative Data Research Centre for England (ADRC-E) stand at the Southampton Science and Engineering Day in March 2017. Our three different activities were:
a) a short storytelling with padlocks and a safety box to explain how de-identified linked datasets can be accessed by accredited researchers in our secure facilities;
b) a hands-on activity called the ‘Admin Data Geo challenge’ where children had to answer three geography questions using a map and a calculator to win a ‘Data Scientist’ badge; and
c) a small ‘experiment’ activity, called ‘Better Candies Benefit Society’, which showed how by linking two de-identified datasets (candy flavours and buttons), we could understand the preferences of adults and children at the festival and benefit attendees the following year (by excluding the least preferred flavour). This latest activity also included a method to count attendees and a sweet reward for people that took part.
Engaging the public with data science at festival can be a complicated task, but if we keep considering the nature of our type of research and transform it with creativity there are endless possibilities in creating something unique to our discipline, that the public will notice and remember for a very long time.