Friday, November 5, 2010
This presentation was given to a set of foundation communication professionals, academics and policy research executives on October 22, 2010. It lays out the case for a Center for Digital Information to assist policy organizations in using new media to better communicate their original information and data on issues of public importance. It followed a presentation by Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.
This presentation, given October 22, 2010, followed one by Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. Lee presented data on Internet and broadband penetration, adoption of mobile technology, and use of new media for various purposes including information consumption. That presentation is available on pewinternet.org.
My task is to steer our conversation to what [changes in the digital landscape] mean for what I'll refer to as the nonprofit policy information field — the broad community of think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, academic institutions and government agencies that feed our public dialogue with original information and analysis.
I'll give you the headlines:
First, the new environment requires new digital products. Not only new techniques to promote old products, but new products entirely.
Second, our field, the nonprofit policy information field is behind and fairly dramatically when measured against this new requirement. This is a problem, a problem with urgency, a problem with consequences, and it requires our attention.
Finally, I'll give you an introduction to the Center for Digital Information, which I think will be a way to focus that attention and forge a practical path forward for this field.
First, new products. Let me start with a quote from Martin Nisenholtz, VP of Digital Operations at the New York Times.
"For many years, the Web was viewed as a big distribution pipe. It would take traditional journalism, mostly text and photos, to all parts of the world. Today, a new kind of storytelling, native to the web, is emerging."
What I believe Lee's lay of the land requires, and Martin's quote illustrates, is a fundamental rethinking of what constitutes information. And that transformation looks like this:
On the left, I call that Digital Distribution, defined as disseminating old products VIA new media. Transplanting our old products into the big digital distribution pipe. Its characteristics are static, linear, defined entry point, text-heavy and tethered. Its calling card:
Click here to download the PDF.
On the right, I call that Digital Information, defined as communicating information natively IN new media, using the unique capabilities of the platform. Growing new products with new features that are completely impossible in any other medium. Its characteristics, by contrast, are interactive, nonlinear, computational, multiple entry point, visual and mobile. Its calling cards are interactive information graphics, interactive databases, data visualizations, smartphone and tablet applications.
In 1995 when the digital age started in earnest, there wasn't much of a gap between what was possible in new media and what we had always done. We really could only do digital distribution using early browsers over dialup connections.
In the 15 years since, that has become clearly not the case. The digital toolbox has expanded exponentially, it has diversified, and put true interactive information in millions of pockets. We learned Monday that the iPad, a device that didn't even exist at this time last year, is on pace to becoming the most quickly adopted non-phone device in history, surpassing the DVD player. 40-50 million tablets are expected to be sold in 2011.
So the digital ecosystem has evolved not just in adoption and location, but in capability, in possibility, and with those capabilities come new expectations from information consumers. This requires that we change not just where and when, but also how information is presented.
What started in 1995 is being ushered out and a new playbook is being written. We have exited an era that ran on static documents posted on Web sites and accessed by browsers on computers; and entered one that is fueled by interactive applications on multiple devices, often in the palm of our hands. This means we need to do more than use new promotional techniques to call attention to our old products; it means we need to reinvent the products themselves.
So I see this as a defining challenge: stop using new media to do what we used to do, and start doing what new media are capable of doing.
This challenge confronts everyone; ALL information providers: commercial and nonprofit, media and non-media, journalist and non-journalist, big organizations and small ones. We are seeing it play out in newsrooms and magazine publishers around the globe.
But our focus is on the nonprofit policy information field — think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, academic institutions, government agencies — not insignificant. It is a multi-billion-dollar field, an important field field, and as a result of changes in the journalism industry, an increasingly direct source of original information on matters of public importance.
So what's the problem? How is this field adapting?
This is the problem.
Despite a 15-year evolution of the information landscape, and the requirement that we rethink our products, the nonprofit policy information field is still operating from a 1995 digital playbook.
Let me tell you what these numbers represent: CDI commissioned a small pilot study to see where we stood. We looked at 100 digital releases by the top 20 policy think tanks — their last five each. I expected the results to look something like this, but even I was startled. Of the 100, only 2 used any capabilities of the medium used to carry the information. 98 were classic digital distribution — static documents distributed via the Web. Additionally shocking, of those 98, 96 were simply a short text introduction and a link to download a document in PDF form.
The gap between what is possible, and now expected and necessary — and what this field is doing — is vast.
A note on social media: this field's response to the new digital environment I think has largely been to employ social media to Tweet about the PDFs, to post on Facebook to promote the availability of the PDFs. What's been missing in this conversation is a rethinking of the PDFs.
In light of Martin Nisenholtz's comments, imagine if the New York Times had decided to continue to use new media as a big distribution pipe, and its Web site was merely a list of links that said 'Click here to download the October 22, 2010 edition of the New York Times.' Where would it be? Probably out of business. But that is precisely what a vital source of original information on issues that matter is doing 98% of the time — in 2010.
This gap has consequences.
In that big pie slice are huge missed opportunities to engage and inform. There are threats to credibility. There are opportunities for other information sources perhaps less expert, less rigorous, but who run the playbook better, to assume authority. There is diminished ability to effect social change or inform policy. And there is reduced return on investment in information gathering and analysis that only result in static documents posted on Web sites.
I don't believe that this fundamental change in what constitutes information only applies to those whose bottom lines are measured in dollars. Just like putting up a library of PDFs would have had dire financial consequences for the New York Times, the same goes for those whose currency is relevance, credibility, authority, impact, and effectiveness.
Now I also said this problem has an element of urgency, actually three elements of urgency. I won't go too deeply into these, but they are important.
First, the journalism industry, the traditional conduit that the nonprofit field uses to carry its information to a wider audience, is shrinking. The capacity for policy discussion in traditional media is greatly reduced. Our field needs to step up its game to compensate. Second, not only has technology changed how we consume information, but it's had an equally large effect on how we gather data. Lee told us about that. The nonprofit policy information community needs to play a central role in making sense of this ocean of data and that will require the new playbook, not the 1995 edition. Finally, the pace of technological change. Things haven't only changed, they are changing faster. We basically had 13 years of various forms of Web sites in browsers. In three short years, because of the adoption of smartphones and tablets, we have some people questioning the very survival of the Web as we know it as we transition to mobile applications as our windows to the Internet. To slow-play our hand in this environment is a risky and expensive proposition. It argues for being more aggressive in innovating, rather than taking a stance of gradual adoption.
So I wouldn't be here if I thought it was an open question whether or not we needed to make this transition. I see it as not if, but how. I also wouldn't be here if I thought the problem was self-correcting. I certainly wouldn't be here if I thought it could be solved by for-profit interactive developers responding to RFPs at the end of the process. I used to be a for-profit interactive developer responding to RFPs at the end of the process.
I'm here because the scope of the problem, the importance of the information, and the structural barriers that slow us down require something new.
I'd submit that something new is a nonprofit Center for Digital Information.
In order to overcome barriers, we need to know what they are. I'll focus on one.
There are three disciplines required to create effective modern digital information products. Research, Communication and Technology.
The barrier is that these functions are arranged like this. Those lines represent critical gaps in time, function and language.
Researchers write reports, communication is called upon to craft a message around that report and get coverage of it, and for-profit interactive developers respond to RFPs at the end of the process. Usually to build a Web site into which we can stuff our PDFs.
This arrangement never puts a question mark next to the form of the information — it is assumed, a document of one kind or another — and doesn't leave enough time or money to execute anything other than static-documents-in-a-browser even if we wanted to.
The result, digital distribution 98% of the time. Simply put, ineffective information by today's requirements.
CDI's strategy is to bridge these three functions, integrating them at the start. This integrated approach will result in native digital information.
The Research function is called upon to put that big question mark next to the vehicle that will carry the information. We're not in the report-writing business, we're in the information business.
Communications is overlapped and its role becomes strategic development of the product itself consistent with the organization's mission. In this sense, Communications becomes transformational, not just promotional.
Technology is moved from the end to the beginning in order to identify what is possible with new methods of rendering, lay out realistic timelines and craft budgets.
Behind every successful digital information project, I'd expect to see traces of this integrated strategy. The problem is this doesn't occur naturally in the wild often enough.
So we need to develop it in the laboratory. That laboratory is the Center for Digital Information.
How will we do it?
The Center's activities would be organized in three areas: Leadership, Collaboration, and Production.
First, Leadership: Evangelizing can't be underestimated. The Center will be out there providing vision, telling organizations that they need to make digital distribution to digital information move. We'll highlight good examples and disseminate them to a wider audience. We'll convene meetings and conferences to share lessons, strategies and knowledge. CDI will observe and document the interaction of Research, Communication and Technology in a systematic way so success can be replicated intentionally all the time, not by chance some of the time.
Second, Collaboration: CDI will speak all three languages: Research, Communication and Technology. The language gap between Researchers and Interactive Developers (the gray and orange circles in the previous graphic) is particularly wide. CDI's approach emphasizes collaboration between these two groups with Communications as a important bridge. Rather than an overly technological approach where the meaning of the information is possibly overwhelmed by a flurry of fancy interactive graphics — CDI believes in working collaboratively with both Researchers and Programmers, finding a common vocabulary, and marshaling each group's skills behind a common purpose. We'll work alongside Researchers with the overriding goal of letting their expertise, their interpretation, their context shine through in interactive presentations in order to preserve the quality and integrity of the underlying research.
Finally, Production: CDI isn't a development shop, but I feel it is vital for the Center to have legitimate production skill so we can back up our recommendations. We'll create models and prototypes to drop into proposals to give potential funders a real sense of how a body of knowledge would come to life in digital media beyond the PDF.
It is not my intention to have CDI's Production activity take the place of building organizations' capacity to do this on their own. Capacity building is a critical element of our approach, because if these sorts of presentations are going to get done more than 2% of the time, the skills and inclination need to live at some level within the organizations themselves.
What we won't do: CDI will not engage in analysis or interpretation of its own. Context and interpretation are the responsibility of expert researchers. CDI is not about changing the story; it's about changing the language used to tell the story.
I'll conclude by saying that this isn't important so we have fun iPad apps instead of PDFs. It's important because the issues are important — whether health, the economy, education, the environment, national security or international development, our ability to remain effective at addressing these issues relies on quality information about those issues. That is information that this community has provided and continues to provide. My goal is to amplify the voice of that information at a time when it couldn't be more critical. The issues haven't gone away, but as we've seen, our public dialogue around those issues plays out on a very different stage, one that we need to do a better job adapting to.
I welcome your input in refining this concept and your support in getting a Center for Digital Information up and running.