15 December 2015 Brand Consultants for a scientist?

Today I hired Three&Me in Ipswich (my home town) as my brand consultants. They are an excellent team with a set of skills that I lack and also some awesome web technical capabilities that make them very efficient at implementing the sorts of things I need.

Why do a I want a Brand Consultant? It's not for my "real" business as a technical consultant. That's doing fine and the companies that need my capabilities don't have trouble finding me. Indeed, for some years my website was a single page and then expanded to a total of 6 pages, more than enough for everything I needed.

But then I started my project of giving away my knowledge via (at first) individual app pages then via increasingly complex sites such as Practical Surfactants and Practical Adhesion. Clearly I had to seriously upgrade my website. Then I had to add responsive design so it would work on phones and tablets. I ended up with a site that's not bad for an amateur like me, and Google search ranks the pages nicely if the search term is fairly technical and a reasonable match to the content.

But that's the problem with amateur sites. We look at it with our own eyes and it looks fine. When I asked Three&Me to look at it with their fresh, unbiased eyes they were not impressed. It makes all sorts of elementary errors and positively decreases the chances of people who don't know about the site actually stumbling across it.

That is the key issue of the web - making it possible for people who need your resoruces to actually find them. As they point out, for example it's not at all obvious that I'm giving away a large, rather useful book on Surfactant Science. And if a visitor finds my stuff on, say, Surfactant Science they may never know that I have lots of stuff on Adhesion Science.

So I've given the team at Three&Me my entire website and they will come back quickly (I can't work with people who are slow...) with a concept (the "easy" bit) but also a working prototype which they can generate quickly as they are good at using smart tools to repurpose previous content. In the meantime they've given me some homework to do as there are some changes that will have to be made (e.g. properly labelling images to make them easier to be found in Google images) and can only be done tediously one by one.

They were astonished that I don't use Google Analytics properly, so that's another change they will make. As they are good at automation, the hundreds of pages will be updated with the appropriate code in a couple of seconds.

Again, this isn't about selling Abbott. It's about making sure that those who would benefit from the knowledge I'm trying to give away can find it. Once I've got it working properly maybe I'll have to start thinking about providing all the content in other languages. That will be a huge task and I don't even know if it's achievable, but part of the re-branding is to find ways to reach a wider audience with the science I happen to know.

One potential audience is academia. At present my academic papers are classical style which means that they are far less useful than they should be. Just as my books have links to my apps so that every equation is brought to life, the paper I am currently co-authoring is based around the fact that the theory is implemented in an app so that readers can directly use our code and theories on their own datasets and can, if they wish, challenge or modify the algorithms in the light of their specialist knowledge. The code, like all my app code, is Creative Commons so that others don't have to re-invent the wheels I've created. I think this is the future of academic publishing, but I'm currently in a tiny minority.

Another audience is one I think of as a leapfrog audience. Those who have been raised in relatively privileged countries can acquire an excellent education but one that represents habits of learning from the 20th century. It is clear that a lot of the users of my apps are from less-privileged countries where it is harder to gain an education. My view is that the app-based way of learning is a key sub-set of the new ways that, of necessity, will be adopted by these nations. Just as many countries went straight to cell phones because their wired infrastructure was too weak to upgrade, so I think that there will be a leapfrogging of old-style methods of learning complicated science and that the app-based approach will be part of that. Of course this links to MOOCs and of course MOOCs are a classic example of early over-enthusiasm followed by discouragement followed (I am sure) by an unstoppable resurgence that will anihilate much of classical academia. I want to reach that growing audience now, and my current setup just isn't good enough.

Given that I believe that app-based learning is unstoppable, my quandry is how to make it scaleable. I don't know why my approach (which is so obvious) is so rare. But there are plenty of people who find coding in Javascript too daunting and even those who can code find that making an app easy to run on all platforms is a very difficult task. To scale up my own app writing I've created some authoring tools which allow me to get a run-of-the-mill app running in an hour or so. What I am thinking about is a web-based tool so that any competent technical specialist who has an algorithm that's reasonably easy to encode can get a working prototype without having to worry about any of the infrastructure stuff such as responsive design, storage of local variables, setting ranges to sliders and so forth. To be able to do this I need to have evidence that others want to spread their knowledge in the same way and just need the tools to do so. Again, my setup isn't reaching such people so I have to do better.

Why do I want to give my knowledge away? The first reason is personal: I have been lucky to have encountered many wise and experienced people during my career who have helped me greatly by sharing their knowledge. I cannot repay them directly, but I can do so indirectly by sharing my knowledge. The second reason is moral. Science is an amazing human accomplishment built up over centuries by all sorts of people for reasons sometimes selfless, sometimes selfish. This magnificent creation is grossly misunderstood by those outside science and grossly underused by those capable of using it. I believe that scientists have a moral duty to make science as usable as possible. I don't mean that science always has to be useful. I am saying that if this amazing enterprise has created something useable then it should be made as useable as possible. I despair in my own areas of how difficult it is to extract useable nuggets from research which, by its own admission, is justified as being useful. My guess is that over 90% of papers on, e.g., adhesion science, justified because adhesion is useful, are in practice unusable.

These are the sorts of aspirations and views which are great for talking about and then doing nothing. But by deliberately setting out to build my brand presence and by writing this blog, I will soon have no excuse and will have to do something more than dream.