Monday, June 14, 2010

The Problem: A Digital Information Gap

by Jeff Stanger

Policy researchers use digital media to distribute, not to engage and inform through interactivity.

Think tanks, government agencies, NGOs and other research organizations spend billions of dollars each year collecting and analyzing information that is vital to the policy-making process and the public's understanding of critical issues. While making massive investments in data collection and analysis, organizations have not shown equal enthusiasm for disseminating the findings interactively and visually in new media form. The dominant approach is still to simply "write a report" and "post it to our website." The Internet is clearly a central part of the process, but is most commonly used only as a means of distribution, a more efficient method of getting the resulting report or body of data from Point A (the researcher/organization) to Point B (usually journalists and opinion leaders).

A print-equivalent model of information dissemination persists.

This old language of research is static, text-heavy, linear, defined entry point, author-controlled, one-to-many, and often journalist-mediated. Its vocabulary is usually long reports offered as large PDF downloads that are equivalent to digital print documents; raw XML or Excel data downloads; static charts and tables wrapped within long HTML pages; and re-purposed Powerpoint presentations posted online.

The language of information dissemination has changed.

The language of information dissemination has changed. It is now dynamic, interactive, visual, illustrated, digestible, non-linear, multiple entry point, user-influenced, portable, and often direct-to-consumer. Its vocabulary includes interactive information graphics, data visualizations, dynamic databases and applications, animations, motion graphics, illustration, video and audio. In addition to the web browser, its platforms are increasingly mobile and touch interface.

Continuing to speak the old language 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 journalistic apparatus to carry the information the last mile.

Meantime, organizations appear to understand the general importance of new technology, making heavy investments in website design and redesign. That process usually involves a visual overhaul, changed layout, reorganization, and installation of a more current content management system. However, that often results in a newer-looking, somewhat reorganized dumping ground for the same type of static information. Organizations apparently realize they must use new technology, but focus on content management and organization, rather than content quality, form, and impact.

The result: a digital information gap

The overall result is a digital information gap — one between the large amount of important research and data created by think tanks, government organizations, and NGOs and the small proportion of that information that leverages the broad interactive, informative capabilities of the digital medium in which it exists.

Read-only environments and long PDF reports are no longer sufficient

In a digital environment, one that continues to evolve and offer new opportunities and platforms, text on a web page and 100-page PDFs are no longer sufficient. Successful research organizations whose findings continue to have influence will be those that can effectively translate their findings into the new language that digital media require and that audiences demand; those that utilize new technology to inform, not just to distribute.

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