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Lisa Sargood - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 28th July 2016
Lisa Sargood, award-winning former Science and Nature Commissioner at the BBC, introduces to the debate around natural history broadcasting the question of how digital technologies, social media platforms and the overall infrastructure of information will be critical to the future of environmental programming. 

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Lisa Sargood

Lisa is Digital Director at Horton Wolfe, mentoring and advising charities, national institutions, the media (including the BBC and Channel 4),commercial companies and start-ups on digital strategy and content development.

For 15 years, Lisa has worked across all media and social channels (winning BAFTAs and an International Emmy), with 7 years as BBC Science and Nature Commissioner. She is also Visiting Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at University of Oxford, researching digital technology and nature conservation. In January 2015 Lisa and Gina Maffey founded the Digital Nature Network LinkedIn group to share pan-disciplinary digital research and practice and support nature conservation aims. (Please get in touch if you’d like to join.)


Earth in Vision Project

Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014

I’m Lisa Sargood and I am now Digital Strategy Director at a company called Horton Wolfe, and I’m also visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute.

How I got interested

Two things, my father was a big watcher of natural history programmes, so we watched everything when I was a child and I completely fell in love with it. This was the years of Planet Earth, Life on Earth rather, the early days, and I’m obviously completely devoted to David Attenborough and everything David Attenborough did, but I watched Wildlife on One, I watched Survival, all of the stuff on Sunday afternoons. And we had a smallholding on the edge of London, where I grew up, where we had all kinds of different animals and I just fell in love with the natural world by running around in the middle of it. I loved it.

My favourite programme

That’s an interesting question, actually, because if I think historically there are all kinds of big shows that I could name, but at the moment, I have to confess I don’t watch much television, because I work a lot of the time, so what I do is download radio and listen to an awful lot of downloaded radio. So at the moment my current preoccupation is Shared Planet on radio, and I like that, because I’m very, very interested in the human nature relationship and how we’re going to solve some pretty complex problems that sit in that space.

What I’m most proud of…

That is a very difficult question. I think in terms of the work I’ve done, what I’ve been most proud of probably is the ability to innovate with an audience. So the projects that I’ve worked on like Springwatch, like Virtual Revolution, it’s the ability to work with an audience to do something new, and often doing something new isn’t doing something that nobody’s ever done before, it might be doing something well or differently that has been done before, but giving it new life and giving it a new audience. So the opportunity to experiment is the thing I’m most proud of. I’m continually pushing to make things better, to make things more collaborative, to make things more participatory and more connected.

Springwatch and Autumnwatch: What we learned

The whole of the evolution of Springwatch and Autumnwatch was that, because it started from a very small scale and, because we very quickly picked up a loyal audience, we were able to trial things with them, to try something new; some things didn’t work and other things did. And because we listened all the way through the evolution of that series, we were able to see what people actually responded to, and because of the format, we could respond quite quickly on camera and online. So yeah, I think it’s very much a question of actively listening to your users, but also trying to surprise them; it’s not all about being responsive, it’s about pushing new things at them and asking to tell you and to respond.

My BAFTA in ‘Creative Archive’

Well again that was an innovation project, so for the Creative Archive, as I say, was a trial to see what the appetite for people’s interaction with the archive was. If you give them a body of archive content, how creative do they want to be with it? And it was a very early project, it didn’t have the participation levels that you do now, but it showed the appetite was there and that people genuinely valued the ability to get hold of good quality content and tell their own story.

What I’m working on now

Well I’m working on… outside of my professional life, my work at the Oxford Internet Institute I’m really enjoying, because my associateship there enables me to do some research and when I left the BBC what I wanted to do was test some theories about the impact I was having with the natural history content on audiences. And one of the things I’m really interested in at the moment is digital technology and how some of the digital technology that we’re using in nature conservation is evolving, and also I think the most interesting bits at the moment for me is how we can borrow different technology from other areas, like the military and health, and apply it to nature conservation. And I’d really like to see if there’s a network of interested parties, and of course, disciplines, because I’m very cross-disciplinary in my thinking about optimal collaboration, whether we could create a network that would drive digital technology solutions for nature conservation to really have an impact.

Should natural history programmes feature environmental change?

I think it’s definitely part of natural history programme makers’ remit. When we talk about natural history programming, we’re talking obviously about a huge spectrum of different kinds of programmes and there is this great, epic, sit back, enjoy the spectacle, the wonder of this planet you live on, but then there is the whole spectrum of running all the way to the really thorny, nitty-gritty issues and I don’t think that should… It should also be the duty of news and current affairs, because it’s part of the context in which we live, but natural history programmes, I think, do need to show the reality of what’s happening to the planet, particularly in the light of recent statistics. So if you’re not giving a complete and honest picture of the devastation, or even the success stories, where a success has been… strides are being made, then the epic pictures and the glorious pictures just aren’t enough on their own to convince people to either care more or do more.

According to the Living Planet Index, world wildlife has declined by 50% since 1979. Has natural history failed to reflect this change?

It’s such an interesting statistic that, because I think everybody who I’ve come across is shocked by that figure, and I think that’s actually a testament to the fact that we haven’t done a good enough job, because if we had that wouldn’t have come as such a shock to everybody. So there is a sense in which we aren’t telling the right kind of stories and the right kind of ways. And I can understand why, because I’ve studied a lot of behavioural change and I’ve studied a lot, I spent 12 years at the BBC working with digital content, trying to motivate people to care and to take action. And it’s difficult, it’s incredibly difficult. And I’ve got some tried and tested ways that you can achieve change and you can motivate people to act, but it’s a difficult ask. So I think people focus a lot on the awareness, NGOs, charities, other bodies focus on awareness, but they don’t know what to do in terms of moving that into motivation and action. So I think that’s the kind of bit that gets neglected, because it’s complex and people don’t know how to handle it.

Can you mix environmental issues with natural history?

That’s a really interesting question. I was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of weeks ago listening to Naomi Klein, and as someone who has worked with environmental messaging for a very long time, one of the things that… A lot of the questions coming out of the audience were, ‘Well what’s the point in us doing this, because in China they’re still building coal-fired power stations?’ And that sense of hopelessness, that, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ and I think that’s what’s the issue with environmental programming is it re-evokes all of those emotions. A sense of, ‘I can’t watch this, because it’s too difficult for me to know what to do.’ And I think environmental programming, again if it harnesses people in simple ways, with direct actions that they can understand and they can be motivated through… to go through awareness, to motivation, to action, I think it can change.

And also to take a slightly more different example, look what Breaking Bad did for chemistry, sometimes it just requires a slightly different approach and I think it requires a lot of creative thinking to overturn people’s attitudes, which are not borne of… I don’t think they’re borne of boredom, I think they’re borne of just simply not knowing what to do how to do it.

Can nature conservation borrow ideas from other sectors?

Well, one of the things that, at the end of 2013, Vanessa Berlowitz hosted a session at Great Ape Conference on Great Apes and technology, and one of the things that came out of that was that [09:36] there’s an awful lot of innovation in other sectors, not just in… The nature conservation sector is basically using drones, camera traps, data collection, all kinds of different technologies, and what came out of that discussion was that there are sectors of the military and human health innovation, which is escalating rapidly, which are also doing the same things or have done some of them a bit quicker. And that technology is locked into silos and the long-term vision would be that there would be some way of opening up those areas of expertise, so there’s more collaboration and that that cascades, that technology, that data gathering expertise can all be put to better use for nature conservation and also the equipment and the materials can be given to people on the ground to help them manage that human/nature interaction much better and address some of the really big issues around poaching and the economic situations of some of the poorest areas of the world.

Releasing BBC natural history archive to the public: The consequences

So I’ve spent a lot of time rummaging around in the Natural History Unit archives when I was at the BBC, initially on a project called Creative Archive which was a pilot project we did, to look at whether it was feasible to open up the archive, because that was an intention… I was at the Edinburgh Festival where Greg Dyke announced that was his hope and intention for the BBC. That pilot project was really useful, because for us it was very successful, it showed there was a real public appetite for natural history archive content that people could use and manipulate, and I use manipulate in the right sense of the word <laughs> because most of the time people did do good things with it, interesting things with it. They used it to educate, to teach people, to show people, to talk about things, to care about animals and their environment. But it also threw up the fact that the archive is a dark and complex place, the rights issues are very complex, the documentation that goes with those clips in the archive is very complex. One of the things people used to say to me was, ‘Well, it must be much easier for you, working with natural history, because animals don’t have rights,’ but of course, cameramen have rights and various other people have rights, and that’s right and proper, but often those contracts are wildly diverse and in some cases not at all suited for a digital exploitation. And it turned out to be a much, more complex ask than anybody had envisaged.

Moving on then, we carried on trying, so between 2008 and 2012 we worked on something called the Wildlife Finder which was lifting out the best of the archive content from the Natural History Unit, putting that online for people again to use, to showcase lots of different species. And that was the first stage of something that I wanted to make more interactive, more participatory. I managed that participation with another archive project, which was The Virtual Revolution and The Virtual Revolution was a project where we took archive and we took rushes from a programme that was actually being made and we gave the public access to all of that material to make their own documentary. And that was a very successful project; people did turn up some really fascinating things. Now the only issue with that was at that point, which is 2009/10, we were aware that it was a bit niche, so the people who were participating and creating their own documentaries were people who were quite technically skilled, and what ideally you would want to do is enable people who weren’t as technically skilled to access the archive, to use it in interesting ways, without having to be real geeks.

Can members of the public successfully use science output on the internet?

The first thing really is that if you give some of these people a really simple ask, you can instil confidence in interacting and in participating. So Lab UK, which was a project we did which was basically a large citizen science project, where we married up scientists and universities with real world scientific problems that they needed data in order to qualify, and we married up the public who came to big BBC science and nature programmes. And so we ran big experiments on stress, on internet behaviour and the science wasn’t at all dumbed down, but it was presented in a way that was simple to do, the ask was kept very straightforward and in a way that was user-friendly and used a lot of gamification principles. She hesitates to use the word ‘gamification’, because there’s lots of people don’t like it, but the principles of gaming, basically. So people had fun doing real science and we told them it was real science, we didn’t dress it up and say, ‘This is just something fun for you to do,’ we said, ‘It’s useful, you’ll learn something about yourself, but you’ll also be contributing to an unanswered scientific question, you can really help create new science.’ And hundreds of thousands of people that signed up to do that and I think if you get the messaging right, if you get the ask right, if you keep the ask pretty simple, even if there are lots of steps in it, if each step is kept simple, it’s genuinely participatory and it genuinely has value to the wider society, and in the process you learn something about yourself that you didn’t know before, or the world that you live in, those things can prove to be extremely successful.

Releasing BBC archive for public use: What might be the consequences?

I think there are lots of different aspects to that question and I think one of the wonderful things about it is that actually there will be unexpected things that happen as a result of that, probably most of them good, and that’s the thing that always happens when you invite a digital audience in and you give them something interesting to do or to play with, you will get surprised, lovely surprises as part of that. So again, you’ll find that that archive will be used for school presentations, it will be used for public presentations, it will help to build awareness. Ideally it would go into communities who haven’t had the tools to communicate the messages they want, the stories they want to tell before, so you’re giving them the kind of kit of parts to tell their own stories and not the stories we want to tell about them, but the stories they want to tell themselves. And that content is very hard to get hold of and it’s resource-intensive and expensive to make, so by short-cutting that for them, there’s a wealth of riches to be delivered, alongside unintended consequences. And I think for any archive holder, the benefits of being seen to be open and accessible and to share that content, I think is an incredibly good thing.

And when we talk about archives, and I’m obviously thinking here more about photo and film, but there are also data archives, and the wonderful thing about opening up data archives is that as you’ve seen with some projects, like the ones the Jane Goodall Institute’s doing or some of the work that’s being done with drones at the moment, is that when you’ve got different data sets layering over each other, again you get beautiful, real-time, better than real-time pictures of what’s going on, and that helps people to be much more…to use … to make better decisions about some of the conservation plans that they’re making or how to balance human nature interaction better.

Releasing BBC archive for public use: What are the challenges?

The thing about any kind of data is that there is a human overhead. You have to know what it contains, an archive contains, you have to make it accessible, because often it isn’t just obviously accessible. There are some automated software programmes that help you identify what’s in an archive, but that takes time and it’s costly. Obviously, as I said, the rights position is quite complex on some of the content, obviously the newer stuff is much easier, contracts are now written for digital exploitation; they weren’t in the past, but that is changing, so one of the things you can do is start from here and work backwards. But the human skills required are still quite important and time consuming, and there are… ways to overcome some of those things; if you can get a big sponsor to look at particular archive projects and stuff, but there are challenges, there are challenges.

Releasing BBC archive for public use: Technical challenges

For example, you might get a beautiful piece of footage, but the music is embedded in the track, and of course, you can’t separate that and you don’t have the rights to the music or you can’t afford the rights to the music, then you can’t use that piece of film. Or simply that the quality that you would need now is not going to be suitable for digital formats, some of the older footage. Having said that, one of the caveats there, I think, is again if you were honest with the audience and you say, ‘This was filmed in…’ whatever year it was filmed, ‘It’s going to look a bit fuzzy round the edges,’ audiences are tolerant of those things. You only have to look at a sat phone in a news environment to know that people expect it to be a bit kind of crackly, because they’re aware of the context. And it is about having an honest dialogue with the audience and managing their expectations.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

I’m an optimist by nature and I say that because however difficult it is, whatever the statistics look like, I think we have to keep trying, so we have to keep talking about what people can do and how people will benefit and what the transition needs to look like from the kind of way we live now to a way that benefits the environment or accounts properly for the environment. The big, missing thing is that even in the current political conversations in the UK, we’re leading to an election, the environment is not featuring high on the agenda, and accounting for the environment certainly isn’t. So I think we all have a duty to collaborate, to try and overcome that pessimism and sense that we can’t change things, because I think although we’re running out of time, I’m optimistic and I think we can. I think there are things we can do. 


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