Ciara and Neil’s SearchScene

I stumbled upon this intriguing project a few weeks ago:

The blurb says that

SearchScene is a charitable search engine that donates a big-hearted 95% of its profits to charity, focusing on charities that help fight climate change and alleviate the suffering caused by climate change.

SearchScene’s elevator speech

So I installed it and was impressed by its unobtrusiveness. Willing to know more, I looked at their FAQ, then noticed a Contact page. Took the chance to offer them a Q&A for my We Are Science series. (Note the first question.) Neil responded that he was following AT on teh tweeter, and so accepted. Here they are:

Ciara & Neil

Q1. I read that Neil worked on Cryosat and Ciara was a communication consultant for Harvard and MIT. Could you (Neil and Ciara) describe what you were doing exactly?

Neil: I was working on the simulator for the Cryosat spacecraft – specifically the AOCS (Attitude and Orbit Control System) part of it. The simulator is a computational model of the spacecraft that the European Space Agency use to test failure scenarios and to help train the flight control team for launch and early operations. Cryosat failed to make orbit back in 2005 due to a launch vehicle malfunction, which resulted in the total loss of the spacecraft. Soon after this, I left the space industry and started an internet business.

Ciara: From 2007 to 2009, I worked as Science Communication Consultant for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and then Harvard University in the USA, on an innovative science education project called Picturing to Learn. The project was run by award-winning science photographer, Felice Frankel, whose work has appeared on the cover of Nature on numerous occasions. Felice Frankel’s idea was that one of the best ways to understand a concept is to try and explain it to someone else in simple terms, often through the use of visual imagery. I helped the PtL team create a methodology and database for analysing their students’ science communication drawings (and their experience of doing the work). The drawings often relied on visual analogies in chemistry, biology, and physics (my particular area of expertise). It is important to know the limitations of any scientific analogy because, while they have great power to clarify and communicate complex concepts, they may also be misleading, especially for students. One of the striking things to emerge from the PtL project was how drawings can be a great way of identifying misconceptions which students have about a scientific concept. The educator can then pay particular attention to those areas where students have those common misconceptions, and try and correct them. Our PtL team also ran some collaborative workshops where science students collaborated with visual design students to explain such things as why the sky is blue. The science students needed to explain the concepts to visual design students, who did not have a scientific background, and the visual design students needed to find ways to render those concepts in a visually engaging way, without generating misconceptions. In the process, both parties learned a great deal from each other.

Q2. When or how did you get the idea of doing something about AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming)?

The climate crisis is the burning issue of our time. We are the first generation to truly appreciate its consequences and the last that can do something meaningful about it. After our daughter was born 4 years ago, we started worrying about the sort of world that she would grow up in. We also saw huge corporations, like Google, raking in billions of dollars and just sitting on huge stockpiles of cash – cash that could be used to make a huge positive difference in the world. We tried various charitable search engines instead, but we were disappointed by the search experience. We thought we could do better, so we created SearchScene.

Despite the fact that SearchScene is a great alternative search engine, we have found it challenging (and very expensive) to get the word out about it. So it would be great if your readers could try SearchScene and, assuming that they like it, to share it with their family, friends and work colleagues.  

Q3. The search results in Search Scene seem similar to what I can find with other more dominant search engines. But it feels like the good ol’ days of search engines. Am I escaping my filter bubble?

You are indeed escaping your filter bubble. We don’t store your searches or your IP address or profile you in any way. Our search results are specific to your country, but that’s about it. They are independent of any previous searches you’ve made. This is a level of privacy that you just don’t get on Google.

Q4. Where does the name come from?

We show you different scenic wallpaper backgrounds on our homepage that change each time you refresh the page, hence the name SearchScene. It’s worth noting that you can switch these off if you like and revert to a blank, Google-like, minimalist homepage. You can also set your own wallpaper image from your computer or mobile device.

Q5. I experienced SearchScene a few weeks already, and my experience with it has been positive. (Reached 1,226 tokens this evening.) The landing page is sexy without being clunky. How did you make it so responsive?

Congrats on reaching 1,226 tokens! Hope you can stick with it! The homepage loads fast because we cache the next wallpaper image on your device. So when you refresh the homepage, it’s already downloaded the wallpaper image in advance. We use a content delivery network to further speed up the load times. Additionally, our search results are served up from servers in the UK and in the US and we maximise caching to achieve the fastest possible load times.

Q6. I like your selection of charities, but they are quite generic. I was wondering if you have considered looking into stoves and solar light. The two seem (at least to me) extremely important issues surrounding climate change and energy poverty:

(The two links are only for illustration purposes. There are many others. I found them back using Search Scene, of course!)

Generic is what we were aiming for with the charities. We have traffic from all over the world – mainly the UK, US and Canada – and we wanted international charities that people have heard of and that people trust.

As far as our impact metrics are concerned, these are just representative of how these charities might spend our donations. Eden Reforestation Projects obviously use our donations to plant trees – that’s what they do. However, our other supported charities support many causes, so although we state that UNHCR provide malaria treatments, this is just an example impact metric we chose. They might just as easily spend that money on solar lamps or burn stoves, etc. We don’t dictate to charities how they should spend our donations – we let them spend it as they see fit. In choosing impact metrics, wherever possible we tried to go for things that would create an emotional response in our users. Who can argue that curing someone of malaria is not money well-spent? We also went for metrics that would scale up quickly. Some charities offer more meaningful metrics than others.

Q7. I noticed there’s a browser in a phone store. What’s your next big thing?

We have Firefox-based browser apps in the Google Play store (for Android) and in Apple’s App Store (for iPhones and iPads). The next big thing really depends on whether people are willing to use and share SearchScene. If we can scale up our traffic, and get a long-term partnership with Microsoft Bing, we would ideally like to increase our privacy features and eventually take on DuckDuckGo. After all, what’s better than a private search engine? A private search engine that donates nearly all of its money to big charities, helping to make a difference in the world! Ideally, we would like SearchScene to become the natural ethical alternative to Google.

Q8. The last question is always about music. What are you listening to these days? Shoot me a video or two!

Neil: I am listening to Hootie & The Blowfish’s new album. I’m so glad those guys got back together. The lead singer’s voice is like velvet on my eardrums! I am just going to include a SearchScene link to Hootie…

Ciara: To be honest, for the past few weeks, I have been listening to the soundtrack from Winnie the Pooh every morning, while I wake our 4 year old up for school! 🙂

About Willard
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