Monday, December 17, 2012

Crowdfunding A Library

Before you read this you should know that for this post I interviewed a personal friend, Cassi Elton, whom I have known since the sixth grade (we've come a long way since 1999.) I’ve supported her project financially, so obviously I’m not an impartial voice. However, the purpose of this post isn’t to raise funds for the Antelope Lending Library – it is to take a closer look at the structure of the project. With grants harder and harder to obtain, harnessing the power of the Internet as a community is playing a larger role in taking a project from enthusiasm to reality. Crowdfunding is something that is already being done to support science research, education, and other community projects so I asked my friend to share her experience.

First things first, who is Cassi Elton and what is the Antelope Lending Library? I’ll allow her to explain using their fundraising video:

Elton is a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. She saw a need in her community for a library on the southeast side of Iowa City – located closer to several schools so that students can go there regularly rather than needing parents to take them downtown to participate in events at the main library. As you can see from the video, the people involved in this project are certainly not short on ideas and excitement – or on books. They already have stacks of donated books. What they need is a physical space. So where does the money for that come from?

While there are grants and funding opportunities for educational, community based projects, according to Elton they usually support programming. So, it is a lot easier to find a grant that would support classes for STEM education, than it is to pay for a building to hold them in. This is something that I’ve heard echoed by scientists and researchers as well – not that they need a building, but that getting started is becoming harder and harder because to get a grant for research you need to have already done research. A lot of work goes into getting to the point where a project could compete for a grant. It reminds me of the employment dilemma so many of us are facing today:  to get experience you need to already have experience. To get financial support, you need to have proof that your research or project is worth funding.

So if a grant isn’t an option to fund the physical space needed for the Antelope Lending Library, what else is there? Private philanthropy is a possibility, but the Antelope Lending Library is a small endeavor. These are graduate students trying to do something to make an impact in their local community. Finding a philanthropist willing to give the library $20,000 as a lump sum is highly unlikely, I mean how many people do you know that would give that kind of cash to a library that doesn’t actually exist yet? What is far more probable is that if Elton, along with her fellow graduate students and members of the community start reaching out to their personal networks the sum needed for the library’s rent can be cobbled together from smaller gifts – everything from $10 to $1,000. That’s where the Internet comes in.

The Antelope Lending Library is hosting their fundraising on Indiegogo – which some people who read this blog may already be familiar with, since it is the website used by Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal to raise over $1 million for a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla. But Indiegogo is just one platform for launching a project like this. Kickstarter is another popular crowdfunding website. For scientists there is also PetriDish, and RocketHub which hosted evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein’s successful campaign to crowdfund a methlab (for science, of course.) One of the things Elton says she likes about Indiegogo is the fact that through flexible funding the Antelope Lending Library will still get whatever funds are raised even if they don’t hit their $20,000 goal. Although, with more than $6,000 raised to date the question of what to do in that situation is a complicated one, “It is stressful because if we don’t reach our goal then what are we going to do with the money we get?” said Elton, “Push forward or try to come up with a different project? We’re responsible for these donations and we take that seriously.”

When I asked what the experience of trying to raise rent money through crowdfunding was like, Elton has positive and negative feedback. On the positive side, putting the project on the Internet took the community from individuals in Iowa City, to individuals across the country. “Something really great about the Internet is that the community can extend beyond your physical location,” said Elton, “A lot of the donations are people from all over the country who value books and libraries so it’s great to get their support for a project that isn’t in their town – but that they still value.”

Although, Elton was quick to point out that calling on existing relationships was the first thing they did to start getting the word out about their campaign, “We have gotten donations from strangers – at least they are strangers to me, but the majority of the donations so far have come from people that I or my family contacted,” said Elton.

Another positive (or negative, depending on how you look at it) aspect of crowdfunding the library on the Internet was the ability to make in impression using multimedia. If you watched the video above, you’ll see that Elton shot it herself at home – but even this homemade endeavor is more appealing than a simple block of text. “The multimedia aspect is really great, but it was really intimidating to make a movie,” said Elton. “To make a movie is easy – to make a GOOD movie, that is harder.” Elton says it took roughly two months to get the movie together in part because volunteers balancing timing with other commitments presents a challenge, but also because a video itself is a project and trying to be ambitious and do a great job with it can consume a lot of time.

“The video isn’t the only way you are letting people know about the project, so it’s not the end all be all you are also letting people know what other sites to go to, and the written summary is also important,” says Elton. “Let people know through your own social media, the video is a part of it, but it’s not all of it.”

While incorporating multimedia was its own rewarding challenge, Elton says there are some downsides to fundraising on the Internet. According to Indiegogo it can take seven interactions with a cause before an individual will consider donating. So, the Antelope Lending Library has to get their campaign in front of people over and over to be effective – but they also have to balance getting out there with being overwhelming or annoying. “It’s hard to ask people for money,” says Elton. “With this you have to ask them for it several times that can be a lot.” Elton also says that with a campaign that spans 60 days, building up momentum and continuing to be excited, getting the word out, and keeping those who have already given up to date on the campaign’s progress is a big time commitment.

Another tip Elton has for anyone interested in crowdfunding their own project, is to make sure that when people ask you, “Why are you doing this?” (Which they inevitably will) you have a solid answer ready. It is also important to have an open conversation with other similar organizations in the area. The public library in Iowa City is aware of the Antelope Lending Library and has no opposition to a library opening on the southeast side of town – especially since the public library doesn’t have the resources for a location in that area. “Keep conversations going and stay open to collaborations,” says Elton. It makes it easier for the community to support a project that they know other organizations in their community also support.

Elton also highlighted social media – their website is hosted on Tumblr, they also have Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter pages – for getting the word out about the project. “Ultimately, I think that person to person outreach is the most effective,” says Elton. “As you get people on board, they talk to people so it’s still a one on one interaction but it expands.”

With grants more competitive than ever, I think we’ll see more and more projects like this turning to the public for help. The Antelope Lending Library project is just one example of how crowdfunding can work – if you’ve been involved in a project that used the Internet to raise funds, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Media Consumption 12/2/12-12/8/12

I've chosen a few things that I read or watched this week to share. I hope you'll check them out, and if you feel so inclined, share with me something that you came across this week that you enjoyed!

Cancer Pick
The Real Housewives of Chemotherapy – Suleika Jaouad in The New York Times

Jaouad writes a column for the Times called Life, Interrupted about her own experience as a young person with cancer. It is a great column, and it is really wonderful to get a patient’s voice and perspective on things. She has a great post about “battle language” Fighting Cancer and Myself that I also recommend, but I chose this video post that she did along with her friend Kristen Howard because I think it fits really well with my cancer pick from a few weeks ago about finding humor in cancer. It’s also a great Real Housewives spoof, and is really well done so what’s not to like there.

Science Pick
I chose this first and foremost because I love the title. But, it is also a great little short post about how uncertain the future of physics research is because things are quite certain at the moment. Having found evidence of the Higgs Boson last summer, there isn’t a whole lot left to prove.

Writing Pick
Tips: Harnessing Social Networks For Information When You Write A Story – Khalil Cassimally onScientific American’s SA Incubator
The SA Incubator is Scientific American’s blog dedicated to new and young science writers (I’ve made a few appearances there myself) but it has a lot of information that I think is applicable to people who are in different stages of their career as well. This "tips" post has a lot of great information about how journalists can use social media sites that I think is a useful read for anyone.

Bonus Pick
Again, chosen mostly for the title. At work this week, my colleagues and I were discussing issues related to uncertainty/risk communication and how to cover scientific “failures.” The issue of paper retractions came up, and this is just one of many stunning examples that can be found on Retraction Watch – it’s a great site, and really useful for journalists trying to keep track of a story and what happens after a paper is published.

Monday, December 3, 2012

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Anne-Marike Schiffer

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I'm so excited to introduce you to our December scientist of the month. Remember our November scientist, Philipp? Well he enjoyed telling you about what he does so much, that his sister Anne-Marike decided to join us this month to tell you all about being a neuroscientist. Like I did with Penny and Philipp I asked Anne-Marike some questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her. Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Courtesy of Anne-Marike Schiffer.
Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Ann-Marike: I'm a neuroscientist. This means I look at how our brains work. I'm interested in how the things we see and hear make the brain learn to expect what to see and hear. For example, when you listen to a song you know, you will know what sounds and words come next. I study what the brain does if we see something that surprises us: when does the brain change it's expectations? For example, if your friend always sings a wrong line in a song, does your brain expect his errors?

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you attend?

Anne-Marike: I studied Psychology in Bochum in Germany and Neuropsychology in Masstricht in the Netherlands. I also did some work in a lab in Dunedin in New Zealand. After that I did my PhD in Neuroscience in Cologne in Germany. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Anne-Marike: I work in the Psychology department at Oxford University in England. I spend most of my time either at my desk or in a laboratory running experiments with my students. The experiments I do to study how the brain learns are very much like computer games. So when I'm at my desk I write these computer games or read about what other scientists who study similar things have done. Sometimes, I spend my time in a center where they have a scanner that I can use to see what the brain does during these computer games. 

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Anne-Marike: I think I loved biology at school and then decided to become a scientist early on, in my first year in college. Some of my friends think it's the thing I'm cut out for and predicted that I would become a scientist when we were at school. They say I wouldn't be as good at anything else, maybe they are right. 

Erin: What is you favorite thing about your job?

Anne-Marike: I very much enjoy coming up with new theories that I can put to the test. I love deciding on questions and on how the questions could be answered. I find it very exciting to look at the results of my experiments, like the images of brain activity. 

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Anne-Marike: When you find something interesting and can try it out, then thinking about it is actually a lot of fun. I thought even writing my PhD thesis was a really cool thing to do. 

Erin: What are some of your favorite things to do for fun?

Anne-Marike: I go horse-riding and sometimes play touch rugby. I try to spend a lot of time with my family and I meet my friends as often as I can. We often get into great discussions, that I enjoy. When I was still living in Cologne, I'd also spend a lot of time at the zoo.
***What do you think about Anne-Marike's work as a neuroscientist? What do you think about the fact that she studies how the brain works using tests that are like computer games? I think she has a pretty great job, and has a good time being a scientist too! If there is anything you'd like to ask her about being a neuroscientist be sure to leave your questions in the comments!

For any of my adult readers, if you enjoy these posts and would like to be the scientist of the month yourself, send me an email or DM me on Twitter, I'd love another volunteer!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Media Consumption 11/26/12-12/1/12

Curating links again this week for interesting things I recently read. But, be sure to check out Bora's picks and Ed's missing links too!

Cancer Pick
Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? – Nathaniel Rich for The New York Times and First we get proof of heaven; now the secret of immortality by Paul Raeburn for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker
Might seem like an odd choice for cancer story of the week, but I chose the jellyfish and Raeburn's great takedown because I think the ways that the Times article fails readers are important to take a look at. In my opinion Raeburn lays it out it perfectly when he says, "It's conceivable that hundreds or thousands of Times readers will get in touch with Kubota, desperately trying to save a dying parent, or a spouse, or themselves. They will come away empty-handed." Rich draws a parallel between cancer cells and jellyfish "immortality" and it's a dangerous one, creating false hope is a serious disservice to readers.

Science Pick
Yasser Arafat and the Mysteries of Polonium 210 – Deborah Blum for Elemental at Wired
I’m admittedly biased since Deborah was my advisor for my graduate program at UW-Madison, but I was really enthralled by her blog post about the issues surrounding the recent exhumation of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the claims that he was assassinated by Polonium 210. She just does a fantastic job putting things into context.

Writing Pick
Generalists and Specialists Can Coexist – Kathleen Raven on Science Tomorrow
Kathleen is one of the journalists that I’m working with on a panel discussion for the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki in June 2013. Our panel, the Killer Science Journalists of the Future, tackles a lot of different issues being faced by new and young science writers. The issue of how journalists should be trained, and if or when to specialize is important and definitely something that could be debated. She even frames the issue around Nate Silver of election prediction fame.

Bonus Pick
Bigfoot DNA, because this is happening. Insert face palm here. And just one of many valiant debunking efforts, this one by Eric Berger for the Houston Chronicle