Over the past few months, two of my Tweets have had more impact than I expected…
Impact is, we are told, a vital output of academic work, and forms a component of the current ‘Research Excellence Framework’ exercise. Impact is meant to extend beyond academia, and how can one achieve that? Here are two examples of how Twitter may have given me some sort of ‘impact’ – though likely not the sort that forms part of any performance metric.
The first example began on the morning of 19 November 2012 when I heard on the radio that David Cameron had said that applications for judicial review (JR) had tripled since the 1990s, holding up important projects and slowing economic growth. Now, I’ve counted the number of JR applications for my work on ‘Reshaping Executive Government’. I know that the increase since 1995 was almost entirely due to immigration and asylum cases (and not infrastructure projects), but no-one on the Today Programme made that point. So later that morning I put our graph on ‘twitpic’ and tweeted a link to a couple of people who had commented on the story.
A few hours later I had a phone call from the Guardian Data Blog, asking if they could put the data on their site. We had assembled the time series from the publicly available Judicial Statistics reports. I linked our spreadsheet to our project webpage, from which it was copied to the Data Blog. A week or so later I also had a phone call from the R4 Today Programme to ask about the data which they then used in interviews with Lord Woolf and Chris Grayling on 15 December.
[Update 15 Feb 2013: In January, Maurice Sunkin and Varda Bondy wrote an excellent article on JR statistics and success rates (and also linked to our graph!)]
Temperature Change in Africa
The other example occurred last week. On Wednesday 6 February 2013, watching the BBC’s epic series Africa I heard David Attenborough say that some parts of the continent have warmed 3.5 degrees in 20 years. Now, that is a lot of warming, given the average increase of global temperatures of about 0.2 degrees per decade. 20 years is also an unusual time period over which to compare temperatures. I had looked at a recent visualisation of temperature changes, and there are no parts of Africa that have warmed that much, according to that map.
So what was the source of this very specific 3.5 degrees claim? I tweeted, this time @LeoHickman (a journalist at the Guardian) in reply to a tweet he had made praising the programme’s comments on climate change. I also did some further searching and tweeted further links, including to a Christian Aid report in which there is a reference to a 3.5 degree rise in maximum temperatures over 20 years in Kericho, Kenya – but I could find no provenance for that figure. I also found that there is considerable argument about temperatures in the Kericho region, but the most recent data suggests about a 0.5 degree rise in the past 20 years.
To his credit, Leo Hickman investigated further, the BBC confirming that indeed the Christian Aid report was the source of the specific 3.5 degrees claim. Hickman wrote a blog post on Guardian Environment. It generated much interest (and considerable criticism of Hickman’s insistence on provenance for the claim). A few hours later, the BBC decided to take that claim out of future broadcasts of the programme (see update to Hickman’s article and (update 15 Feb 2013) BBC website). I don’t know if my tweet was the main reason for Hickman’s investigation. I think it must have contributed as he linked to it in his article, which is an oblique acknowledgement, I guess. And if his blog post had not appeared, I would have tried to investigate the claim further and maybe… written a blog post!
Reflecting on these two experiences, I realise that first, I have no illusions that many people read my tweets or blog posts (I watch the site stats!). These two examples depended on other people who followed them up and amplified them to far greater audiences. Second, there’s no point being precious about personal recognition – putting information out on the internet means that it will be used with or without acknowledgement – though generally people are conscientious about that. Third, putting facts on Twitter is worthwhile and may have quite unexpected ‘impacts’.