Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Lets talk Landslides... via #EGU2014

The BGS Landslides Team are currently attending the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna (#EGU2014). Yesterday, they went to a great session about how science is communicated and they said they'd ask the BGS followers this question:

How well do you think we are doing at communicating our landslides work?

Do you follow @BGSlandslides on Twitter? Or did you see us at the British Science Festival or BGS Open Day last year? Have you seen us interviewed on the TV or in the newspapers? Perhaps you've watched our video on the YouTube channel (see our latest one below)? 

PLEASE comment (or like the link on the BGS Facebook!) if you think we're doing well. Be honest. All (polite!) feedback gratefully received. You can see what we do here: www.bgs.ac.uk/landslides

Now I'm going to run and hide behind the sofa in anticipation...! Thank you!

Catherine Pennington

Friday, 25 April 2014

Communicating Uncertainty by Murray Lark

Today Murray Lark, BGS Environmental Statistician, talks about the science of turning complex statistics and number crunched data into useable and helpful information. (oh and if you're attending the European Geosciences Union congress next week make sure you catch our sessions on communicating uncertainty- info at the end). So, over to Murray: 

Not only a town in Texas, USA
As earth scientists we are used to the idea that our data, and the inferences that we make from them, are uncertain because of natural variability and the complexity of the processes that we study.  Statistics provides us with well-honed methods to express much of that uncertainty mathematically, and to examine its consequences.  For example, rather than stating that the concentration of a potentially harmful element in the soil at some location definitely exceeds a regulatory threshold we may estimate the probability that this is the case.  However, we are discovering that a further challenge exists.  How can we effectively communicate this uncertain information to the manager or policy maker who has to make decisions?  Often the state-of-the-art statistical outputs that we can generate are far from clear to the people who most need to understand them.  We also want these users, or potential users, to understand that uncertain information is still useful.
One organization that has tackled this problem head-on is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  They require scientists to use a verbal scale to provide information about the uncertainty of predictions or estimates which they make.  On this scale one outcome may be “virtually certain”, another may be “about as likely as not” and another may be “unlikely”.  This scale has been studied by psychologists who have made recommendations about how it could be made more effective and consistent.
In work with colleagues from the Geological Survey of Ireland we have recently completed an analysis of some of the Tellus Border geochemical data from the border counties of Ireland.  We analysed data on soil cobalt and manganese content to show where grazing sheep may be at risk from cobalt deficiency.  Sheep need enough cobalt in the grass that they eat to ensure that the microbes in their digestive system can make enough vitamin B12 to keep them healthy.  The supply of cobalt to the sheep is partly dependent on the cobalt content of the pasture soil, and on the manganese content because manganese oxide can bind soil cobalt and prevent plants from taking it up.  We were able to compute local probabilities that there may be a deficiency due to soil conditions, but how can this be communicated effectively?
We used the IPCC scale to define the legend for maps based on our statistical output.  The map above shows how likely it is that a local soil analysis would raise concerns about cobalt deficiency.  The colour scale indicates whether this is "exceptionally unlikely", "virtually certain" or somewhere inbetween.  This uncertainty is partly due to the variability of soil, which means we cannot be certain about the local concentration of cobalt and manganese.  It is also partly due to local conditions, since, other things being equal, we will be most uncertain in regions where the cobalt concentration is in the transition range between that for deficient and non-deficient soils. 
Our map makes use of research about the IPCC scale.  For example, while the verbal scale and colours are the main tool for communication, numbers are there too (which research shows helps to ensure consistent interpretation by different users).
An open access paper which describes this work in more detail can be read at
Readers who will be at the European Geosciences Union congress this year may be interested to attend a session about the communication of uncertain information in earth sciences organized by BGS staff and colleagues.  Our speakers will cover a range of topics including recent psychological research on how uncertainty is perceived and the implications for communication, real-world trials of alternative methods to express uncertain model outcomes, some new statistical ideas and a range of case studies.
Oral session: Thu, 01 May, 13:30–15:15 / Room B5
Posters: Thu, 01 May, 17:30–19:00 / Blue Posters B187 et seq.
And don't miss a Poster Discussion session where poster authors will present briefly on a key point from their poster: Fri, 02 May, 10:30–11:15 / Room B7


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

myVolcano erupts online... by Julia Crummy

The new BGS app, myVolcano, was released into the Apple Store on 7th April in collaboration with our American friends at the Smithsonian Institute.  It had 224 downloads in the first week, and has featured all over twitter!  The app enables people to explore the volcanoes of the world on their phones through an interactive map.  By zooming into different areas and clicking on the volcano icon, people can learn about its past eruptions and facts about the volcano itself such as the type of volcano, the types of eruptions and rock type.
myVolcano also enables people to photograph and record observations of ash fall during an eruption,  for example ash covering their car windscreen.  In 2010 and 2011 ash fell across parts of the UK which came from the Icelandic volcanoes, Eyjafjallajökull and Grímsvötn. In 2011 BGS put out a request for ash samples, and we got almost 200 samples sent in to us!  Through myVolcano people can now take photographs and measurements which are logged straight into a database giving scientists up-to-date information on the distribution of ash across the UK.  With the release of the app, we are better prepared for the next eruption!

Get myVolcano here
We are currently developing version 2, which will have features such as: a volcano compass so users can find their nearest volcano; more information layers on the map such as the location of volcano observatories and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs), which release information on the dispersal of ash; push notifications so that we can send messages and information to users; and a video upload function.  Version 2 will be released in March 2015.  An Android version of the app is also in the pipeline.  We are also looking to build collaborations with other organisations so that the app can be used in other countries.

If you have any feedback please get in touch through the app (click on the About tag) or the webpage. Or you can tweet @myVolcano_team or the Volcanology team @BGSvolcanology, we're always happy to know how you're using myVolcano and what your favourite feature is. Thanks to everyone who has already got in touch, it's great to read, share and respond to your comments.
 Julia Crummy, BGS Volcanologist