U of M Institute on the Environment’s Dialogue Earth project taps creativity of the crowd to create factual, fun science video

Innovative pilot project test crowd sourcing to produce unbiased messages about timely topics

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Todd Reubold, Institute on the Environment, reub0002@umn.edu, (612) 624-6140
Jeff Falk, University News Service, jfalk@umn.edu, (612) 626-1720
Tom Masterman, Dialogue Earth, maste078@umn.edu, (612) 624-2778
View winning videos

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (1/10/11) – Dialogue Earth, a St. Paul–based nonprofit media project grown out of a collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Foundation for Environmental Research, today announced the successful completion of a pilot test to engage an online community in the creation of innovative, scientifically sound, non-advocacy science videos.

Founded in 2009, Dialogue Earth’s mission is to increase public understanding on topics of environmental importance.

The topic selected for the test was ocean acidification – an issue that increasingly concerns scientists, but with which few Americans are familiar. “The intention was to choose a topic about which content creators and video viewers would have little prior knowledge,” said Kent Cavender-Bares, an experienced science communicator who founded Dialogue Earth at the Institute on the Environment.

The partner chosen for the test was Tongal, a California-based online community of freelance multimedia creators who collaborate and compete in online contests to produce everything from story concepts to fully produced video pieces.

“This was an ideal challenge for the Tongal community,” said Rob Salvatore, CEO of Tongal. “Our platform is designed to produce optimal creativity while maintaining the integrity and direction of our client's message.”

Dialogue Earth provided Tongal contestants with 12 facts about ocean acidification assembled by Cavender-Bares, whose doctoral research was in oceanography, and offered a total of $10,000 in prize money for the best videos. Contestants were instructed that entries would be judged on how likely they would appeal to “conservatives and liberals, those who support environmental advocacy, and those who do not.”

“It was critical to us that videos be engaging and compelling without making a specific call to action,” said Cavender-Bares. “Our vision for Dialogue Earth is to become a trusted information provider, and to avoid the political pitfalls associated with simultaneously providing information and taking sides on environmental topics.”

Humor was a common thread that ran through winning videos – including a jam session from a reggae band named “Snaily Puffin and the Coral Briefers,” a spoof of the classic black-and-white public service announcement, and a scene with a male mermaid as an unwanted neighbor. View the winning videos.

“We are extremely impressed by the creativity of the crowd, and are encouraged about the potential of crowd-sourcing to help communicate complex and often contentious environmental topics,” said Dialogue Earth associate director Tom Masterman, a former television producer with a decade of experience in online media. The Dialogue Earth team intends to conduct additional multimedia production tests in 2011, including variations in incentive structures and process aimed at increasing turnaround time and improving quality. The team is also developing a crowd-based process for distributing videos.

To ensure its content is relevant, Dialogue Earth is creating tools to analyze social media dialogue trends.

In the first quarter of 2011, Dialogue Earth will launch Pulse, a tool for visualizing public opinion on topics of environmental importance. Analysis of sentiment expressed in social media such as Twitter will help Dialogue Earth identify topics for future videos.

Combining cutting-edge analytics and crowd-sourced content, Dialogue Earth aims to create a highly efficient system for distributing trustworthy, timely information about critical issues.

“We're striving to make the turnaround on the process as real time as possible,” said Cavender-Bares, “from recognizing a significant trend in the social media dialogue, to distributing a video to tens of thousands of online viewers.”

About Dialogue Earth

Dialogue Earth is a nonprofit media start-up whose mission is to increase public understanding on topics of environmental importance. It believes that widespread distribution of trustworthy, relevant content will lead to a more productive dialogue and, ultimately, more informed action on Earth's most critical issues. To that end, it is building a team of experts in science communication, social media, content creation and Web application development. Dialogue Earth is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment and Foundation for Environmental Research.