Please Note: This project is not currently active. The content on this site is provided for reference and is not actively maintained.

So You’re On Quora, Now What?

by October 16, 2011

As we gear up to tackle some basic questions and answers on Quora about the carbon cycle as part of our EarthQ project, with a goal of soon being able to tackle issues like ocean acidification and global warming, it seemed that a roadmap to Quora would be key for collaborators who might never have hear of it. Hence, the idea of a Quora Infographic emerged late this past week. Here’s version 0.1 that I’m throwing out for feedback. What do you think? Helpful? Silly? Gaping holes?


UPDATE: Now showing version 0.2, thanks to a comment from friend Mike Troiano to highlight the start arrow. Keep the comments coming!

Version 0.1

See this also on my post on Quora. I’d appreciate you up-voting it there if you like the idea.

Creative Commons License
So you’re on Quora, now what? by Dialogue Earth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license should be submitted here.

More »

Putting Candidates and Others on the Spot About Global Warming

by September 29, 2011

This opinion piece, written in response to a recent Star Tribune op-ed, was published on Yale’s Forum for Climate Change and the Media on September 29, 2011.

The presence, or perhaps more so the absence, of serious climate change dialogue in the run-up to the presidential elections could make the issue a volatile unknown: Few politicians in the national spotlight want to be caught holding strong opinions in favor of aggressive policies to slow, curb, or reverse anticipated climate change.

James Lenfestey, a former Star Tribune editorial writer on climate and education, recently argued in Minneapolis Star Tribune (op-ed 9/17) that journalists should drill presidential candidates on six questions related to climate change, presumably to highlight those who are silent, or openly hostile, toward taking action in the face of this global threat.


The media clearly can do a better job in raising serious issues like global warming with those leading, or aspiring to lead, our country. BUT putting candidates on the spot is unlikely to yield what our country desperately needs: a serious, ongoing dialogue about this global issue, which has connections to nearly every aspect of our society. Such a dialogue MUST be built on a foundation of trust and respect for political and ideological differences, as well as different scientific backgrounds.

Lenfestey’s six questions can be boiled down to these two: Do you believe global warming is occurring? And, do you believe we should have aggressive policies to counter this threat?

Lumping together opinions about how persuaded one is by the underlying science with questions about the appropriateness of a policy response is a recipe for an unproductive dialogue. Having spent a number of years working with experts drawn from across society to describe the condition and use of our ecosystems, I learned that it is essential to separate these aspects of the conversation—especially for the more contentious issues. In other words, we collectively need to find some common ground before arguing about appropriate policy responses.

We need to build an initiative that is viewed as trustworthy to all of us, no matter our ideological and political positions, or our understanding of science. WE can do that. We can run a transparent process—open to full scrutiny and input from anyone—that develops a series of questions and broadly accepted answers relevant to the issue of climate change. Not 100 questions, but rather more like 10. Each answer would be endorsed by experts drawn from across society and viewed as trustworthy by citizens and politicians from across the spectrum, both politically and ideologically.

As an example, these answers would undoubtedly include:

  • Carbon dioxide, a colorless gas present in tiny concentrations in the atmosphere, can trap radiation from the Earth that would otherwise dissipate into space.
  • There is strong evidence of a marked increase in carbon dioxide directly linked with the growth of industrialized societies across the globe.
  • Our “fingerprints” are detectable in the altered chemical nature of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Long-term temperature trends indicate significant increases in recent decades.

These would be the first building blocks to a serious national dialogue.

Let’s take on this challenge. Let’s develop a robust, multimedia Web presence that brings to life the science behind the questions-and-answers for general audiences. Ideally, this effort would have its foundation on a public Q&A site, like Quora (

Circling back to Lenfestey’s questions, let’s ask each candidate if he or she would support such an open, transparent process to create robust common ground across society. Global warming, which has the potential to irreversibly alter our world, demands a serious dialogue, and now is the time for to initiate it. Time is short, and there is a lot to do. Let’s make it happen.

Kent Cavender-Bares is an environmental scientist and the founder of Dialogue Earth, a nonprofit media project that has received major seed funding from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Foundation for Environmental Research. The views represented are his alone and do not represent those of the University of Minnesota.

More »

Capturing Mood About Daily Weather From Twitter Posts

by September 29, 2011

After considerable preparation, we’ve just launched a version of our interactive tool, Pulse. Using Pulse, users can explore feelings about the weather as expressed on Twitter.

We began the process by choosing a topic that would yield a substantial volume of discussion on Twitter as well as be of general interest. Once we settled on weather, we wrote a survey designed to gauge Twitter users’ sentiments about the topic. With the help of workers from the “crowd” accessed through CrowdFlower, we had tens of thousands of relevant tweets coded as to the expressed emotion about the weather. These results were then used to create an “instance” of the Pulse tool, which manifests as a map of the United States that at a glance reveals Twitter users’ sentiments about the weather in their region on a given day. (You can read more about the coding process here and our choice of weather as a topic here.)

For our launch of Pulse for weather, we chose to feature tweets published over a month beginning in late April, 2011, a period in which many extreme weather events occurred—the devastating tornado in Joplin, MO; widespread drought throughout the South; and flooding of the Mississippi River, among others. The image below is from May 25, three days following the Joplin tornado (jump to the interactive map here).


We gathered tweets from all 50 states as well as for about 50 metro areas. Here you can see a zoom up on several states centered on Missouri.


The interactive map tells part of the story, namely a state’s or city’s overall sentiment about the weather, while the content under the “Analysis” and “Events” tabs reveal some of the “why” behind this sentiment: what were some of the most notable weather events occurring on a given day? [Note: our "events" feature has a bug in it and is currently turned off. In the future, icons will show up on the map to highlight out-of-the-ordinary weather events, like outbreaks of tornadoes, persistent flooding or drought, etc.] To what extent did the weather deviate from normal conditions? Why were tweets from, say, the South, uniformly negative during a certain time? What was happening when we saw a single positive state amidst a region that was otherwise negative?

We hope that weather is just the beginning. We envision using the Pulse tool to visualize nationwide sentiments about more complex, nuanced topics in the future—a sample of emotions about gas prices is just around the corner, and see our preliminary work on opinions about global warming. For now, you can explore the Pulse tool here, and let us know what you think!

More »

World Food Production: Don’t Delude Yourself; Population Will Grow

by August 31, 2011

The following letter-to-the-Editor, a follow-up to my post about global population growth that is essentially a foregone conclusion, appeared in the Aug. 31, 2011 issue of the Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune:

In response to Prof. Allen Levine’s commentary about world hunger (“It’s world hunger (and it’s our world,)” Aug. 21), one letter writer and several readers who commented online argue for population control as an essential part of the equation.

In reality, fertility rates have dropped markedly over past decades. Demographers understand that, even at today’s relatively low rates, today’s children will have children of their own faster than older generations will die off.

An aggressive program to lower fertility rates will not alter that reality.

For those concerned about feeding, clothing and fueling the world’s population, accepting that we will have another 3 billion residents on the planet by 2050 is essential.

More »

Sentiment Analysis Milestone: More Than One Million Human Judgments

by June 27, 2011

judgment-shot We have developed a process, dubbed Pulse, to extract nuanced sentiment from social media, like Twitter. We recognized early on that tools weren’t available to adequately answer specific questions, such as: “What’s the mood about today’s weather?” or “What portion of Twitter authors who discuss global warming believe that it is occurring?” or “Did Apple or Google have a more favorable buzz during this year’s South-by-Southwest Interactive?” Specifically, we concluded that it was necessary to get humans involved in the process—especially for Twitter posts, or tweets, which are often cryptic and have meaning that might be missed by a computer algorithm.

So, we turned to crowdsourcing.

However, successfully leveraging the power of the crowd for our sentiment analyses required cultivating the crowd, which we have achieved by working with partner CrowdFlower. In short, CrowdFlower offers an approach where we can access various work channels (we have relied mostly on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), yet do so by layering on a quality control filter. Specifically, we intersperse within jobs what CrowdFlower terms “gold” units—in our case, tweets for which we already know the sentiment.  Workers build trustworthiness scores by getting the gold units correct. If they miss a gold unit, they get some feedback from us that has been tailored to that unit, such as “This person is happy that their garden is getting rain, so this should be marked as a positive emotion about the weather.”

We have been running a lot of jobs through CrowdFlower, but only recently did I step back and add up the tweets processed. For more than 200,000 individual tweets, we have received more than 1,000,000 trusted, human judgments from the CrowdFlower workforce! I know our research team, who had to do a bunch of judgments early on as we worked out a viable strategy, are grateful that we could get help from the crowd.

cf-jobs More »

What is the best way to develop a top 10 list on Quora?

by April 24, 2011

quora-pictureTwo days ago I posted a question on Quora asking for the top ten energy issues the general public should understand (see my blog post here).  To my delight, the question has already received several thoughtful answers, and it has been viewed nearly 100 times.

I have just posted a new question on Quora to understand the best way to create such a top-ten list (view it here). Asking each person to provide a listing of 10 issues seems that it might not be the most productive way to get a great top-10 list. If one person has five points that the next person agrees with, they could suggest changes to the answer’s author or copy those five points and add more. As a potential answer writer, I could find this to be cumbersome and potentially off-putting.

Because Quora provides a voting system that allows all registered users to promote answers up, or down, on a list, perhaps it would be more efficient to have each person provide just a single issue per answer (individuals could certainly provide multiple, discrete, answers rather than a list of multiple issues per answer). Then, with good participation in voting, an ordered list should result organically.

Within minutes of posting this question on Quora, I had already received an excellent answer that nicely summarized the options two of the options I had been considering: (a) as the question poster, I should jump in at some point and summarize, or curate, the answers; and (b) the results from Quora could serve as the input to a committee of independent experts. The respondent also suggested that, as the question poster, I might choose to ask several of the respondents to work together to come up with a collaborative answer. I look forward to seeing what other great ideas come out of this!

More »

What are the top 10 energy topics that the general public should understand?

by April 22, 2011

quora-pictureGetting a handle on the priority issues that should be included in Dialogue Earth’s upcoming Media Challenge is no small task, plus it needs to be done transparently and in an inclusive manner that ultimately builds trust.

Ten years ago there were fewer options for answering a tough question like this (refer to our History section for a description of the lengthy process used in an effort to identify 100 indicators to describe the condition and use of U.S. Ecosystems). Today, there are some powerful platforms that hold considerable promise for helping to expedite this process (see discussion in this recent post).

Today, we have launched an experiment using one of the prime Q&A platforms, Quora, to explore the viability of exploring answers to this question in an open and transparent manner. If you have an opinion, please jump over to Quora and make your voice heard. You can enter answers directly, and you can vote on answers provided by others. Here is the background material that I added to the question on Quora: (more…)

More »

Bringing Trustworthy Energy Information to the Table

by April 20, 2011

This opinion piece authored by Kent Cavender-Bares was published in the Pioneer Press on April 20, 2011.

‘We need all of our energy options on the table!’ So say those advocating for the removal of the legal barrier preventing new nuclear plants in Minnesota. I completely agree with the sentiment and would go a step further: We need to understand all of our energy options so we can make informed decisions about them.

Does this mean entering a cycle of unending study? No. Expert studies certainly have their important role. But they are not the weak link. Rather, what is missing is an adequate transfer of knowledge from the expert community to the rest of us regarding the multiple, unequal options available. We need translators to bring technical key points to life in a way that furthers our understanding while remaining faithful to the underlying science and technology.

The challenge in making that happen with complex, controversial topics such as nuclear energy is twofold.

First, it means traversing the gap between the language of those who understand a technology like nuclear energy and the rest of us. That is where great communicators come into the picture.

Second, it means separating trustworthy information from hyperbole. We need to be able to identify and then clearly communicate a knowledge base that is widely shared by experts drawn from across society — experts from corporations like GE and Xcel as well as academics and experts from various advocacy groups and government agencies. (more…)

More »