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Sydney Observatory blog – lessons from the first 2 years, an interview with Nick Lomb

The Sydney Observatory blog will turn 2 in June. It has been an enormous success for the Observatory with its traffic now accounting for at least half of all traffic to the Observatory website each months. Since its launch there have been 291 posts to date and 1073 filtered comments.

The Sydney Observatory blog is one of the quiet success stories of museum blogging and ‘easy’ social media. The Observatory itself is an important heritage site in Sydney and is run by a small dedicated team of staff. Whilst the public can visit small exhibition spaces during the daytime the Observatory is best known as a historic building and a place for star gazing. Night visits are extremely limited in capacity because of the size of telescope dome, and the static Sydney Observatory website was established almost solely to promote through-the-door visitation.

The blog was started as a strategy to expand the Observatory’s online content and to expand its potential audience. We knew that there was a large online audience for astronomy and that the Observatory staff were extremely knowledgeable, well-connected and able to produce some fantastic astronomical content tailored for a southern hemisphere and Sydney audience – but they lacked a quick publication method to do this efficiently.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary I spoke to Nick Lomb, Curator, Astronomy, who is one of the two bloggers who post to the Observatory blog. Nick has written 209 posts so far.

The blog has been an enormous success. How much time do you allocate to blogging each week? How has this impacted on your other work?

Nick: A post takes me between 20 minutes and one hour to put up. It all depends whether I am preparing it from scratch or it is material I already prepared for another person. It could also be material from someone else such as an amateur, but sometimes editing material from someone else takes longer than writing my own. This is especially the case when I have to work on images that have been embedded inside a Word file and need to be extracted or if four or more images have been put into one and I need to untangle them before posting.

The time spent on the blog does mean I need work extra hours to be able to complete my other work. However, I find that I get more satisfaction on having put up a well laid out and informative post than almost anything else I do.

How do you choose what to blog about? What impact, if any, has there been on content choices as a result of questions from the readers of the blog?

Nick: I am an astronomy educator so I my posts tend to contain worthwhile astronomical information. At the same time I do not want to repeat news items, but want to provide information that people generally would not come across elsewhere. For example, if there is an event in the sky such as an eclipse or a conjunction of a couple of planets I would write about that from a southern hemisphere perspective. It is important as our [local] news media often quote reports from the United States or Europe without noting that the view from our part of the world can be very different.

Other posts can be triggered by a question from a member of the public. If a question is of interest to one person then it could also be of interest to others. Recently, I had a long email discussion with someone about dark matter and, after obtaining approval from my correspondent, the discussion went on the blog. Still other posts are related to what I see on the rare occasions I have the opportunity to travel. And, of course, it always helps if I have a suitable image in my own collection to illustrate a post and I enjoy being able to reuse my own photos in this way.

How have you engaged amateur groups in the blog? WHat has been the response from the amateur groups and particular individuals like Monty?

Nick: There is an amateur group long associated with the Observatory called the Sydney City Skywatchers. A few members of the group not only make excellent and useful observations, but are happy to tell people about what they do. Occasionally, others have sent me their work from other groups such as the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group and even from the Irish Astronomical Society. I encourage these amateurs to send me their reports to put on the blog as it not only provides a useful outlet for their work, but it shows others what useful and fascinating work can be done as an amateur astronomer.

You have added a ‘Report your sightings’ section. What is this for? Why did you do it? Have you found that conversations emerge between readers/contributors?

Nick: Sydney Observatory often gets reports of meteors or other strange lights in the sky. In the past these were often written down on scraps of paper and lost. I did prepare report sheets placed in a folder so that my colleagues could keep all reports in the one place. That worked well though sometimes the folder went AWOL and then for a while the reports went unrecorded. The idea was for us to keep the reports so that if there were many reports for a particular bright fireball then they would be sent to an interested astronomer who could use them to work out the path of the object and the possible location a remnant may have fallen.

The ‘Report your sightings’ page does the same as the folder and the report sheets. Except, of course, it does not go missing and the media and other astronomers can look at the page to check the sightings of any event.

Many of the events relate to sightings that are clearly not astronomical. A common one is the sighting of small backlit clouds or aeroplane vapour trails in the west at sunset. People are often disappointed and hard to convince when I explain that that their sighting is not of something unique. A recent amusing one was the case of someone who observed two bright lights in the sky very close together and claimed that they were moving all over the sky. I commented that two planets were in fact very close together in the sky that morning and were slowly rising in the east, but otherwise they were still. The original correspondent was unconvinced.

There are sometimes comments and support for particular sightings from other readers. Generally, however, people expected an authoritative reply and explanation [which the Observatory is more than happy to give].

Do you read all the comments? How do you choose what to respond to? Roughly what proportion have you had to remove because they have innapropriate (except for spam of course!)?

Nick: I do read all comments and respond where I can say something useful. For instance, I respond to comments on the ‘Report your sightings’ page if I can explain what people saw – it could have been a planet, a backlit cloud (as mentioned above) the International Space Station (if I determine that it made a pass at the right time), an Iridium flash or a genuine fireball. However, if the description is not clear enough to determine what the sighting was then I do not answer.

How has the astronomy community, especially fellow academics, responded to the blog? Do they admire it or find it rather frivolous? Do you feel that it has reinforced the Observatory’s reputation/brand or undermined it in any way?

Nick: I presented a paper on the blog at a professional astronomical conference at Macquarie University last July and I had very good feedback from the professionals. Soon after the conference I was highly gratified when accidentally coming across the webpage of a high-profile Australian research astronomer and noticing a link to the blog with the comment “a really cool blog”. So I think the blog has helped the Observatory’s profile both with the public and with the research community.

The monthly podcasts are a fascinating addition to the blog. What audience needs are you trying to serve with them? Has it had any positive or negative impact on visitation?

Nick: The best way to learn about the night sky is for people to go outside on a dark night together with an astronomer to point out interesting sights and tell them about what they are looking at. The podcasts provide the next best thing that people can download to their iPods or MP3 players and listen to outside. The blog also provides monthly star maps that they can use while listening to the podcasts to help them become familiar with the night sky. And, of course, the more people know the more they want to find out. A good way to do that for people in Sydney is to visit Sydney Observatory.

Thanks to Nick for the interview. Visit the Sydney Observatory blog .