Monday, June 21, 2010

The Path to a Center for Digital Information

by Jeff Stanger

Director Jeff Stanger discusses the path to starting the Center for Digital Information, how policy research organizations' online habits have changed little in the first fifteen years of widespread use of the Web, and the importance for organizations to rethink their mechanisms for communicating research findings in a digital society.

Policy Research

In 1996, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, then dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, offered me a position as associate director of the Washington office of the newly established Annenberg Public Policy Center. The think tank's mission was to make the research being done at the Annenberg School relevant to policymaking in the nation's capital.

I saw firsthand the importance of quality research and solid data in informing policy discussions.

From 1996 to 2000, first as associate, then as director of the Washington office, I did research on some timely policy issues. First was "issue advocacy advertising," a new tactic at the time in an electoral context, used by the Clinton and Dole campaigns and a number of other organizations to air television and radio ads largely outside campaign finance restrictions. The Annenberg Public Policy Center became the leading research institution tracking, collecting and analyzing the content of these advertisements. The research was widely cited in coverage of the 1996 and 1998 campaigns, and later quoted in Senate debate on campaign finance reform. I saw firsthand the importance of quality research and solid data in informing policy discussions.

Also during my tenure at APPC, the quality of children's television became a hot issue as commercial broadcasters were about to be handed shiny new spectrum for high definition television. The Gore Commission turned to APPC as an independent analyst to put broadcasters' "educational and informational" children's programs under the microscope. Under the leadership of Dr. Amy Jordan, the Center wrote a series of annual reports measuring the quality of children's television. As a supplement to the content analysis, APPC initiated an ambitious national survey of parents and their children to measure television viewing habits (at first titled the "Television in the Home" survey). APPC was the first to document with hard data that having computers and video game consoles in the home in fact added to the total time kids spent in front of screens, rather than displacing television. (The survey was renamed "Media in the Home.") The Center's work on children's media was another example of the role of research in important policy debates.

It just so happened that 1996 to 2000 was also the beginning of widespread use of the World Wide Web. At Annenberg, we did what most think tanks did — we banged out reports in Word, printed a few hundred copies, blast-faxed a press release, scheduled a news conference, and handed out packets to journalists over coffee and danish at the Press Club. But we also established appcpenn.org and started posting our reports on the Web as PDFs.

Web Development

NetCampaign became one of the first Web development companies focused exclusively on politics.

Meantime, I moonlighted on a congressional campaign in 1998, helping out a friend during my time off. Spending a few days in-district at the close of the campaign, I set up a Web-based election returns system consisting of several landline telephones linked to precincts around the district; a friend reading out numbers as calls came in (he was the husband of the campaign manager so was obligated); and me punching them into Excel, pasting them into a static HTML file, and finally uploading them to the Web server every 10-15 minutes. Our numbers were the freshest for that one House race out of 535, and were soon being displayed live on CNN.

I decided on that November 3, 1998 night that I would start a firm to develop political campaign Web sites and strategies. I did, and NetCampaign became one of the first Web development companies focused exclusively on politics. But my background in policy research, not politics, proved to be NetCampaign's most valuable asset. The company slowly gravitated to working for more and more research organizations, those funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others. There were plenty of very capable Web design companies out there, but in NetCampaign these organizations found a firm that spoke their language, understood their objectives, and shared their mission. We were able to bridge a wide gap between those doing policy research and the technical skills necessary to put their findings online.

From Digital Distribution to Digital Information

Policy research dissemination online is in virtually the same position as it was fifteen years ago.

I recently looked back at over a decade, more than fifty Web sites developed, a few awards won here and there, countless reports posted, and was left with a stark realization. Despite all of the time and money devoted to Web design — myself and my firm as part of the process — policy research dissemination online is in virtually the same position as it was fifteen years ago. There may be less free coffee and danish, certainly fewer journalists, but the basic process of writing reports and distributing them online as PDFs or static HTML text hasn't changed much at all. Live online election returns have come a long way, but unfortunately, policy research has not.

Make no mistake, during that same timeframe, the development of new digital tools, methods and platforms for displaying data and research interactively has been astonishing and exciting. Interactive information graphics, dynamic databases, rich mobile platforms and applications, interactive data visualizations, animation, motion graphics, and more make up the vocabulary of a native digital language. But despite this changed language, and the unmistakable opportunities that accompany it, research organizations have stalled. They have yet to embrace entirely new, uniquely digital, interactive ways of communicating their findings. Instead, they use new media only to distribute old forms. The "report," the "article," the "white paper," the "issue brief," the "fact sheet," the "press release" — static modes that were simply transplanted to digital media fifteen years ago — still constitute nearly 100% of policy research organizations' online output in 2010. The wrappers look better, the Web-based management tools are slicker, the social media tools for announcing are powerful indeed, but the products are still their old static selves. "Click here to download the full report in PDF form" remains the norm.

Policy research organizations are speaking an old language in a new medium. This is a problem with consequences.

In short, policy research organizations are speaking an old language in a new medium. Doing so firstly fails to use the full capabilities of new technology to engage audiences interactively and visually, cutting short the information's value. Secondly, it does not acknowledge the changing expectations of information consumers exclusively used to encountering material online or in the palm of their hand. Finally, it relies on a weakening journalism industry to carry the information the last mile.

This is a problem with consequences. Credibility, authority, influence and relevance are the currency of all think tanks, government researchers, NGOs, and educational institutions, and they are at risk. If not now, in the future these attributes will be reserved for organizations that can successfully make the transition from using new media to distribute to using new media to inform through interactivity. That transition will require an acknowledgment that this medium is not merely a distribution channel, but a communication medium with its own language.

Why does this all matter? Because policy research matters. It informs effective policymaking and public understanding of critical issues. The decisions based upon it are consequential. Billions of dollars are invested in it, and many more billions of dollars are spent because of it. And finally, the traditional journalism industry so long relied upon to turn research into accessible, actionable information is sputtering.

A New Approach

There is an ingrained assumption that the resulting product will be a traditional "report." This assumption needs to be thrown out.

This problem calls for a new approach. Having worked in traditional for-profit Web design for over a decade, and before that for five years as a policy researcher, I've seen how the research process (and the funding of research) is segregated from the technical skills that are necessary to conceive and execute interactive presentations of the findings. Developers are put to work to design Web site wrappers, install new content management systems, and reorganize navigation schemes. But rarely, if ever, are they engaged to think through the research from its inception. This is due in part to a very real language barrier between researchers and technical types. But it is also the result of an ingrained assumption that the resulting product will be a traditional "report," written through from page 1 to 100. Under that assumption, there is no need to involve interactive developers in creating the product. Its form is predetermined. It will simply be posted as a PDF when complete, quick work for any content management system. This assumption needs to be thrown out. The medium has changed more than at any point in history, adding the critical elements of interactivity and behavior. This fundamental change should force the research community to ask a question previously unnecessary: Should we be writing reports or should we be creating information? In a digital environment, those two things are no longer equivalent.

In order to devise new interactive products for communicating findings — an essential move — researchers and developers can no longer work on separate tracks, converging only on the day a static document is to be posted on a Web site. They must work collaboratively throughout the research process — from proposal, to research design, to data collection and structuring, to analysis, and finally to the creation of a set of interactive presentations that will carry the findings online.

This approach argues for a new type of organization — one that works proactively as a partner to research organizations and the institutions that fund them.

This approach, I believe, argues for a new type of organization — one that works proactively as a partner to research organizations and the institutions that fund them, not one that simply responds to RFPs for Web site development. I believe it calls for a broadly-supported institution to provide leadership, vision, technical skill and the proven ability to bridge the gap between research and new communication technology. That is why I'm starting a Center for Digital Information as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on a fundamental change in how information is communicated.

I look forward to developing this concept at digitalinfo.org, fleshing out the ideas that form the foundation of CDI, evangelizing on why it all matters, and involving a wide range of stakeholders in the process.

Jeff Stanger
June 2010

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