Recently, I gave a presentation at the Midwest Environmental Education Conference called “Stemming the Tide of Sustainability Information.” What follows is an extremely condensed version of the talk, with links to the more general tools I talked about. If you’re interested in seeing the slides from the original presentation, they’re posted on IDEALS, the University of Illinois’ institutional repository. Click on the link in the Files box to view the slides in PDF.
Remember when it used to be hard to find information about environmental sustainability? Those days are gone. Today, it seems like we’re drowning in it. Although waving a white flag (or throwing in the towel) is tempting, there are tools that can help you manage the flow of information before it completely overwhelms you.
Most people seek information by searching or by scanning. Normally, you search for information when you’re doing research or trying to answer a question. When searching for information, you’ll most often turn to your favorite search engine. You most often scan for information when you’re trying to stay current on a particular topic. Most often, you seek out trusted news sources when you scan.
When searching for information, there are some rules you need to remember.
1) Use your time wisely
Do a preliminary search. If you haven’t found what you’re looking for in 10-15 minutes, ask a librarian. You can call your favorite public, school, or university library or use GLRPPR’s Help Desk Librarian service. You can also use browser add-ons to help you refine your web search results. Two of my favorites are Search Cloudlet (only available for Firefox) and Deeper Web (available as a Firefox extension or via the web as a standalone search engine). I posted about both of these tools previously.
2) Don’t believe everything you read
Choose your sources carefully and remember that libraries evaluate books before purchase. Don’t assume the most recent information is on the web. For example, the Code of Federal Regulations is updated on a set schedule, both in print and on the web. You still need to check the Federal Register for recent regulatory actions. Also keep in mind that you need to check to see how recently the web page you’re viewing was updated. If it’s not readily apparent (i.e. EPA, DOE), you should also investigate the person or organization behind the web site. Greenwashing happens on the web too.
3) Use the appropriate tool
Sometimes a search engine is the best place to start. But it’s not the only place to look. Google, Bing, and other search tools are especially helpful when you’re looking for something specific, an unusual term, or an exact phrase. These search engines also have advanced features that can help you refine your search. If you’re looking for a lot of information on a particular topic, a directory (e.g. GLRPPR Sector Resources, the ISTC Library’s Reference Guides) is often a better place to start because they help you focus your search. Don’t forget the databases available through your local library. They can help you identify books, journal articles, newspaper stories, and other resources. Keep in mind that good information is still available in hard copy.
4) Be flexible
Although I often use Google as a verb, it’s good to try different search engines. As an interesting test, do a search using Blind Search, then vote for your favorite results to see which engine you liked best without the branding. If you want to see how Google and Bing compare in a head-to-head test, try out Bing vs. Google and see the results side by side. Bing does have some interesting features that Google lacks, including links to related, often narrower searches and the ability to mouseover a tab to see more information about specific links.
Flexibility is also important when choosing search terms. For example, there are many ways to describe “pollution prevention” including “waste minimization”, “zero waste”, and “cleaner production”.
5) It isn’t always on the Internet
Even though the web has a tremendous amount of good and not-so-good information, there is still a lot of value in books, journal articles, videos, and other hard copy resources. Your local library (or the GLRPPR Help Desk) is a good place to start looking for those materials.
Trying to keep up with current environmental news is a never-ending task and my e-mail inbox shows that, more often than not, I’m unsuccessful at truly keeping up. Fortunately, there are some tools that make it easier.
1) RSS is your friend
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. The idea behind RSS is that, instead of going out to your favorite web sites, the content comes to you through either a news reader or a service that converts the feed to an e-mail (e.g. Feed My Inbox). Common Craft has a great video explanation of RSS if you want more detail. My favorite feed reader is Google Reader, but there are many choices out there (see lists here and here). You can also incorporate RSS feeds into your personalized Yahoo! and Google home pages.
2) Twitter — it isn’t just for lunch
Twitter is more than a place to share what you had for lunch (or whatever mundane task you’re currently doing). It’s also an easy way to keep up with news you’re interested in. The 140 character limit makes it easy to scan headlines quickly. If you have a mobile device (e.g. an iPhone), you can also bring Twitter with you and scan the news on the go (just not when you’re driving, please). You can also repost (“retweet”) stories to your friends/followers easily. Twitter and other forms of social media are also useful for finding out what your friends/followers think about a particular issue. To start a conversation, ask a question and wait a few minutes for a reply.
3) Specific sites to scan
Everyone’s list will be a little different. You can see some of the suggestions I made during my presentation here. You can also look at the Environmental News Bits blogroll (in the left column under the News Sources heading). You can also read Environmental News Bits, GLRPPR News, and/or P2Rx News if you want someone to do the scanning for you. If you have a favorite, post a link in the comments.
Keeping Track of Your Favorite Sites
Once you’ve identified sites you like, you need a place to store them where you can find them again and share them with people. There are two tools that I use for this. The first is Read It Later, which allows you to temporarily save links you want to look at later, but don’t want to keep permanently. I find it very helpful for news articles that I want to look at once, then discard. It works as a Firefox extension, a series of bookmarklets, or as a mobile phone app.
The second tool that I use regularly is Delicious. Delicious and other social bookmarking sites (a list of 125 of them is here) are really helpful because they not only allow you to access your bookmarks from anywhere, but also share them with other people. You can also work with groups of people to identify resources using a common tag. As an example, read about the P2TagTeam effort on the GLRPPR blog and see the results on Delicious at http://delicious.com/tag/p2tagteam. You can also search social bookmarking sites to see what other people are tagging on a particular topics. Or you can add people of like mind to your network (you can see my bookmarks at http://delicious.com/tsmom1219/).
Hopefully, these hints will save you time and effort as you surf the waves of sustainability information online. If you have questions or comments, leave them below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.