Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Recapping the "Beyond the PDF" Roundtable

On February 15, 2012, the Center for Digital Information convened representatives of more than forty-five leading policy research organizations, foundations, government agencies and the White House. The packed roundtable discussed how the field is adapting its information production and dissemination practices to keep pace with a rapidly evolving digital environment. The event was developed in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

All photos by David Hawxhurst, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Jane Harman
Jane Harman, President and CEO, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Jeff Stanger, Founding Director, Center for Digital Information
Jeff Stanger, Founding Director, Center for Digital Information
Beyond the PDF gathered forty-five of the nation's leading policy institutes
"Beyond the PDF" gathered forty-five of the nation's leading policy institutes
Jane Harman
Jane Harman of the Wilson Center opens "Beyond the PDF"
The event's #beyondpdf hashtag was a trending topic in Washington, DC
The event's #beyondpdf hashtag was a trending topic in Washington, DC
Tim Herzog, The World Bank
Tim Herzog, The World Bank
Constance Steinkuehler Squire, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Constance Steinkuehler Squire, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Alex Howard, O'Reilly Media
Alex Howard, O'Reilly Media
Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project
Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project
David Morse, Civic Ventures
David Morse, Civic Ventures
Andrew Schwartz, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Andrew Schwartz, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Rory Cooper, Heritage Foundation
Rory Cooper, Heritage Foundation
Alan Rosenblatt, Center for American Progress
Alan Rosenblatt, Center for American Progress
Kate Sullivan Hare, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Kate Sullivan Hare, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
David Rejeski, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
David Rejeski, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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Dr. James McGann, University of Pennsylvania
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Complete Event Audio

Anyone interested in public policy has had this experience, probably many times: You hear of a new report from a foundation or think tank, head over to their web site, locate the page in question, and see "Click here to download PDF." Then you wait while a lengthy all-text document loads into your browser, and you finally read something no different in form than what you could have read ten, twenty, or fifty years ago. You may have accessed it over the internet, but nothing about it used the unique capabilities of the medium through which it was delivered.

This method of producing and distributing information still prevails, despite rapid changes in the digital landscape. Four in five Americans now have access to the internet. Two-thirds have broadband connections. Half of the population carries an internet-connected smartphone. One in five already has a tablet computer. The internet has surpassed all but television as the public's primary source for news and information on national and international issues. And advances in programming languages and web browser technology have changed our expectations of what online material should look like and how it should behave.

"We're in this line of work because we recognize that in a democracy, information is a vital, fundamental public resource. As people change the way they access and use information, we here must change how we provide it."

Foundations, think tanks, and policy organizations - important producers of information on vital public issues - are struggling to keep pace with technological change. This struggle was the topic of "Beyond the PDF: Think Tanks In a New Digital Age," a forum hosted by the Center for Digital Information on February 15, 2012. Representatives from the nation's leading policy research organizations and foundations packed a ballroom at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in downtown Washington, DC to analyze the challenges they face and explore the lessons that can be learned from new developments in areas as diverse as polling, online games, journalism, and digital textbooks.

Former Congresswoman Jane Harman, currently the President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, put the challenge in stark terms in her introduction. "We are witnessing a revolution with effects much greater than the eras of TV or radio," Harman said. "We're in this line of work because we recognize that in a democracy, information is a vital, fundamental public resource. As people change the way they access and use information, we here must change how we provide it."

"The standard unit for communicating information is changing..."

The title of the meeting, "Beyond the PDF," encapsulated both where policy researchers and foundations are and where they need to go. CDI Director Jeff Stanger noted that "reports, whitepapers, policy briefs and articles" will become less important as more people receive information on their computers and mobile devices. "In this new digital age," Stanger said, "the standard unit for communicating information is changing from a document, digitized and transplanted into new media for the purpose of distributing it, to the interactive digital application built specifically for the medium, using its unique capabilities." Stanger noted that 98% or more of what the policy sector puts online is still old-form static documents. That difference - between taking something created in a print format and putting it online, and creating something specifically tailored for the technology through which it will be delivered - is at the heart of the challenge these organizations face.

"If you can put data visualizations in policy-makers' hands that are informed by real-time data as opposed to quarterly reports, it allows them to make better decisions quickly."

This applies not only to the communication foundations and policy organizations do with the public, but also to their communication with policy-makers. As Alex Howard of O'Reilly Media pointed out, even President Obama carries around an iPad wherever he goes. "If you can put data visualizations in policy-makers' hands that are informed by real-time data as opposed to quarterly reports, it allows them to make better decisions quickly," Howard said. If it arrives in a format "that is native to the web, HTML5 as opposed to a PDF that has been ported into an e-book, it dramatically changes the way that information can be shared by that policy-maker." Although Washington may be the last major city where Blackberries still outnumber iPhones, Howard reported that more federal agencies are adopting Android and iOS devices. "That means that we're going to have a shift from email and Blackberry culture to the web and data."

But creating digital presentations where print documents used to be enough is neither cheap nor easy. It requires an investment of money and time, not to mention collaboration between policy, technology, and communication experts. "There are two crucial elements that a think tank needs in order to make this happen on a regular basis," said Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress. "One is to have an interactive development team, at least one or two people if not more on staff who can do application development, not just web page layout. And second is to have people in the policy research departments that are thinking in terms of more dynamic presentations of the data that they're working with."

Those changes are happening, but not nearly fast enough. James McGann, Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed to the upheavals of the Arab Spring to issue a challenge to think tanks and policy organizations. The new global populism, he said, "is fueled in part by the ability to transfer knowledge and utilize technology in a way that empowers individuals that they can have as much power and as much transforming power as institutions and states once had." Established institutions must adapt, McGann argued, because "Think tanks and those that are in the business of providing analysis are being perceived as part of the problem, not part of the solution." To move nimbly through a changing world and produce the greatest amount of positive change, those organizations need to respond to the upheavals in communication technology.

The only question, the participants agreed, is not whether to respond but how to do so most effectively. "The impact of digital technology on our public dialogue is undeniable," Jane Harman said. "And permanent."

For a full list of attending organizations, visit digitalinfo.org/beyond-the-pdf

Comments welcome...