This post originally appeared in The Guardian on May 24, 2014. It is reposted here with permission from the author.
Blaise Pascal: ‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.’
Mathematician Blaise Pascal famously closed a long letter by apologising that he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Unfortunately, his pithy point about “download time” is regularly attributed to Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau, probably because the public loves writers more than it loves statisticians. Scientists may make things provable, but writers make them memorable.
The World Bank confronted a similar reality of data journalism earlier this month when it revealed that, of the 1,600 bank reports posted online on from 2008 to 2012, 32% had never been downloaded at all and another 40% were downloaded under 100 times each.
Taken together, these cobwebbed documents represent millions of dollars in World Bank funds and hundreds of thousands of person-hours, spent by professionals who themselves represent millions of dollars in university degrees. It’s difficult to see the return on investment in producing expert research and organising it into searchable web libraries when almost three quarters of the output goes largely unseen.
The World Bank works at a scale unheard of by most organisations, but expert groups everywhere face the same challenges. Too much knowledge gets trapped in multi-page PDF files that are slow to download (especially in low-bandwidth areas), costly to print, and unavailable for computer analysis until someone manually or automatically extracts the raw data.
Even those who brave the progress bar find too often that urgent, incisive findings about poverty, health, discrimination, conflict, or social change are presented in prose written by and for high-level experts, rendering it impenetrable to almost everyone else. Information isn’t just trapped in PDFs; it’s trapped in PhDs.
Governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are beginning to realise that digital strategy means more than posting a document online, but what will it take for these groups to change not just their tools, but their thinking? It won’t be enough to partner with WhatsApp or hire GrumpyCat.
I asked strategists from the development, communications, and social media fields to offer simple, “Tweetable” suggestions for how the policy community can become better communicators.
“For nonprofits and governments that still publish 100-page PDFs on their websites and do not optimise the content to share in other channels such as social: it is a huge waste of time and ineffective. Stop it now.”
– Beth Kanter, author and speaker. Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media
“Treat text as #opendata so infomediaries can mash it up and make it more accessible (see, for example, federalregister.gov) and don’t just post and blast: distribute information in a targeted way to those most likely to be interested.”
– Beth Noveck, director at the Governance Lab and former director at White House Open Government Initiative
“Don’t be boring. Sounds easy, actually quite hard, super-important.”
– Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy
“Surprise me. Uncover the key finding that inspired you, rather than trying to tell it all at once and show me how the world could change because of it.”
– Jay Golden, co-founder of Wakingstar Storyworks
“For the Bank or anyone who is generating policy information they actually want people to use, they must actually write it for the user, not for themselves. As Steve Jobs said, ‘Simple can be harder than complex’.”
– Kristen Grimm, founder and president at Spitfire Strategies
“The way to reach the widest audience is to think beyond content format and focus on content strategy.” – Laura Silber, director of public affairs at Open Society Foundations
“Open the door to policy work with short, accessible pieces – a blog post, a video take, infographics – that deliver the ‘so what’ succinctly.”
– Robert McMahon, editor at Council on Foreign Relations
“Policy information is more usable if it’s linked to corresponding actions one can take, or if it helps stir debate. Also, whichever way you slice it, there will always be a narrow market for raw policy reports … that’s why explainer sites, listicles and talking heads exist.”
– Ory Okolloh, director of investments at Omidyar Network and former public policy and government relations manager at Google Africa
Ms Okolloh, who helped found the citizen reporting platform Ushahidi, also offered a simple reminder about policy reports: “‘Never gets downloaded’ doesn’t mean ‘never gets read’.” Just as we shouldn’t mistake posting for dissemination, we shouldn’t confuse popularity with influence.
Groups from London to Santiago to Nairobi are working to bridge the gap between technology and advocacy. Internationally, networks like the Transparency and Accountability Initiative and the Open Knowledge Foundation continue to promote “user-centric” thinking about online tools.
But online or off, the measure of a tool’s value is its usefulness to the people it is meant to reach. Whether your particular jargon calls them users, readers, audiences, customers, or beneficiaries, their needs must be the blueprint of your strategy. By that measure, Pascal’s comment has turned out to be pretty effective: No one remembers the letter, most even forget the author, but his postscript has been steadily liked, shared, and used since 1657.