Thursday, September 15, 2011

Getting Down to Business: CDI Announces Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Grant

by Jeff Stanger

A 12-month $387,621 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication will establish and pilot CDI's programs to integrate digital innovation with the policy research field.

Research on public policy issues matters. It's how we understand the nature and scope of the social challenges we face. On Tuesday, we had a striking example of this: The U.S. Census released new data on income, poverty and health insurance coverage, showing that median household income in the U.S. sagged to $49,445, leaving 15.1% of Americans (or 46.2 million people) in poverty. Twenty-two percent of children under 18 are living below the poverty line. Nearly 50 million people (16.3% of the population) are now without health insurance coverage. Among blacks, the rate of uninsurance is 20.8%. Among Hispanics, it's even higher — 30.7%.

Because of its scale and visibility, this bit of research was hard to miss. But that's not true of all policy-relevant research. If you've followed along at or Twitter, you know that the idea for a nonprofit, university-based Center for Digital Information grew out of the observation that while the capabilities of digital media have been expanding exponentially — markedly changing the behavior and expections of information consumers — the policy research field has continued to employ a dissemination strategy circa 1995. Policy research organizations still tend to post reports, white papers, policy briefs and journal articles on websites as PDF downloads, and rely on a shrinking journalism industry to carry the information the last mile. This leaves this important work in danger of gathering digital dust, with serious consequences for our public dialogue.

That's why I am pleased to announce that the Center for Digital Information has received founding support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, through a grant to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, to pilot a set of programs designed to bring digital innovation to the research field — policy research organizations, academic institutions, foundations and nonprofits. CDI will be affiliated with the Annenberg School and based in Washington, D.C. The center begins operation today, September 15. The 12-month, $387,621 grant will be used to establish CDI; develop, test-drive and refine several programs; and set the wheels in motion for future growth. Specifically, CDI will work with a number of RWJF's research grantees to conceive and develop a set of digital-native supplements for communicating their research findings.

We'll aim to take policy research beyond the usual output of static documents to include newer interactive digital techniques such as web apps, database applications, interactive graphics and maps, mobile apps and tablet presentations. Beyond just creating shiny digital tools, CDI will examine the structural conditions that have slowed the field's adaptation to a changing digital environment, and help develop models for earlier and more strategic investment in digital development. In addition to our work with researchers, this pilot project will entail planning several events to convene stakeholders from the research, policy, philanthropic and technology communities. We will also develop some prototype features for an expanded Digital Information Showcase and a new Digital Information Dashboard of key statistics.

Engaging networks of researchers, funders, interactive developers and other stakeholders in this process is an important part of CDI's strategy, so please spread the word about the center and its projects — and let me know if you have input and opportunities to collaborate. You can follow CDI on Twitter at @jeffcdi and here at And if you're interested in hearing more about CDI or this grant, you can call me directly at 202.251.1218.

Comments welcome...