Conservation Matters January 2012

The Texas Land, Water and Wildlife Connection

Expertise just a click away thanks to eXtension Ask an Expert program

By Laura Bentz 

“Is a gherkin simply a small pickling cucumber?”

“Do Rocky Mountain horses tend to be slightly cow hocked?”

“Where can I send a hay sample for nutritional analysis in New Mexico?”

The answers to these questions and many more can be found on extension.org and are provided through a program known as Ask an Expert.

In 2008, the Ask an Expert program was created by eXtension to provide its users with competent, thorough information from experts across a wide variety of subject areas.

According to extension.org, “eXtension is an interactive learning environment delivering the best, most researched knowledge from the smartest land-grant university minds across America.”

The eXtension website contains articles on many topics, ranging from family caregiving to oil spills to pest management. While researchers, students or other university-related personnel can use this site, the information is designed for the public.

Despite the large number of articles available, users may find that they are still unable to locate the answer to a particular question they might have. That is when Ask an Expert can prove valuable. This program allows users to submit questions to be directly answered by a specialist or expert.

Craig Wood, associate director for eXtension Initiative, explained that when a user submits a question, he or she is first directed to a site bringing up related questions and answers. If the person finds the answer there, the question is not directed to an expert. If the answer cannot be found, the user can submit the question and it is filtered by a computer system to a specialist or expert, based on location and content.

“It works very well on that (filtering questions to the correct expert), particularly if the user selects a category,” said Wood. “If the system can’t figure it out, we have a human interface that comes in behind it and gets that question to the right person.”

The human interfaces, known as question wranglers, filter the questions similar to the way in which the system does, by matching the field of expertise with an expert that is in a similar geographic area.

When an expert receives the question and provides a response, the process is still not over.

“So the user gets their answer back through an email from the expert. And if they need to do some follow-up at all they have the ability to follow up, ask additional questions, ask for clarification, so there’s a dialogue that takes place between the person submitting the question and the expert that’s answered it,” Wood said.

According to Wood, this program has been gaining popularity since its introduction in 2008. On average, about 25 questions are received a day. Wood also explained that 8,000-10,000 experts are available to answer questions, coming from 65 Communities of Practice, as well as some county agents and other individuals.

Because of the popularity of the program, Wood said that a widget has been created for the Ask an Expert program, which is a graphical interface that people can add to their website. Users can then submit questions through the widget to be answered by experts from that website. Currently, there are 584 Ask an Expert widgets.

“I would just encourage everybody across the board (to use Ask an Expert). Because we touch a lot of different subject areas, almost any subject area that somebody would be interested in, we can route the question to an expert that can give them an answer,” Wood said.

And, in case you are wondering about that first question, the answer is no. According to the expert, while related, gherkin is not simply a small pickling cucumber.

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