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Responding to digital disruption of traditional communications: ‘reusing the wheel’

This is the fourth in a series of blogs looking at the challenges of ‘digital disruption’ and ODI’s strategy in responding to them. The first blog set the scene, and the second and third outlined in more detail two planks of ODI’s strategy, namely, ‘being there communications’ and ‘cradle to grey content’.  This blog looks at the final strand of ODI’s strategy, ‘reusing the wheel’ (as opposed to reinventing it): the free (or cheap) digital content, technology and tools that can improve the quality and delivery of all communications products.

In earlier blogs, I’ve discussed one of the biggest challenges for think tanks in using the Internet: the amount of information out there that is competing for attention. As well as being a challenge, however, this also offers an opportunity. For it is this mass of content – and the tools that ‘netizens’ and companies have created to be able to produce more of it – that can be used by think tanks to produce better communications products with less investment. This can be done in two ways:

  1. using content being made freely available by others that can help to improve the look, feel and usefulness of their communications;
  2. employing free or very cheap consumer tools and solutions that don’t require an IT department’s support, and therefore save time and money in the process.

Reusing content that is freely accessible

By connecting people from across the world, the Internet has provided insights into diverse lives and interests at the click of a button. Humans are a talented species, and the Internet is full of examples to prove it, where people have uploaded content that does, or says, something better than you or I could ever do/say it. For example, on the Internet you can find:

  • online photo galleries like Flickr or Google Picasa Web Albums, where amateurs and professionals upload their images of diverse topics. There are huge ranges of photos, including whole galleries of photos by organisations like the World Bank. ODI sources almost all photos used in our website or publications from Flickr.
  • drawings, maps and other imagery uploaded by designers and enthusiasts to Wikimedia Commons. In terms of maps, there are particularly useful blank maps that can be useful for adding in colour to highlight particular geographic points and then used in publications.
  • statistics and visualisations of common national or global datasets, as well as sector-specific data. For example, in the international development arena you can find data and visualisations that can be used in presentations from Gapminder (statistics from the UNDP Human Development Reports, see example of Hans Rosling using these below), the World Bank, Google Public Data Explorer or Climate Funds Update (this last site was created by ODI).

Ted Rosling uses Gapminder to debunk myths about the ‘Third World’

  • training manuals and videos to explain key concepts or tools. You can get information and step-by step instructions on many different topics that can be used in workshops or guidance materials for example. I’ve used CommonCraft videos regularly to explain how to use a number of online tools:

CommonCraft: RSS in Plain English

  • online archives that range from historical snapshots of the web produced by institutions like the Internet Archive (a US not-for-profit organisation) and the British Library, to archives of books and content in Google Books or Project Gutenberg. These can be used to access free information that might otherwise not be available or be paid for content.

The great thing is that, often, access to this content is also more open than you’d imagine. Many individuals will be happy for think tanks and not-for-profit organisations to use their content and ideas to further a message, or improve a piece of communication. They can either signal this unofficially, perhaps by noting it down on a website or in response to an email request, or officially through use of the ‘Creative Commons’ licence. Creative Commons is an alternative to copyright that enables content to be labelled as ‘some rights reserved’ rather than ‘all rights reserved’. The video below explains the different rights you can reserve. The most important thing for think tanks – as they are generally not-for-profit institutions – is that under this licence, most content is usable in some way by them. And they simply have to provide attribution of the source, which they should be good at given their background in referenced research.

A video explaining Creative Commons

Taking advantage of online consumer tools and solutions

Alongside the mass of content that Creative Commons and the sharing culture of the Internet makes available for think tanks to use in their communications, there are also a number of tools and products that think tanks can quickly and cheaply use to produce their communications outputs:

  • Online website builders like Google Sites, WordPress or SquareSpace can allow you to create small but professional sites. These simple hosted solutions can provide functionality that might take a developer a lot of time and effort to produce otherwise, such as signing up to mailing lists, or including forums, blogs or maps. ODI has used these primarily to produce first-phase websites for larger projects, which creat a professional-looking site quickly and easily and allow for breathing room in the development of detailed criteria for a second-phase site (which may be produced more traditionally by developers).
  • For storing and sharing details of useful resources, social bookmarking tools like Delicious can replace the favourites/bookmarks in someone’s browser, and online reference management tools like Connotea or Citeulike can replace reference tools. These can then offer easily accessible bibliographies and resource libraries for others to browse.
  • Google Groups offers a great way to create mailing lists that like-minded people can use to discuss issues. Teams at ODI have used these during bids for projects, and to discuss and prepare papers or other materials.
  • If you’re holding events and want to register people, EventBrite and Upcoming can do this for you, and even allow you to sell tickets. There are also numerous free and cheap webinar solutions. Finally, if you want to stream meetings online, you can do this through Ustream, Justin.tv or Livestream with adverts. After years of trials with each of these free tools, ODI recently upgraded to a paid version of Livestream to allow for ad-free viewing.
  • To create documents or presentations you don’t need to invest in expensive copies of Microsoft Office – Google Docs can perform the majority of the same functions and then produce PDFs or even Microsoft Word copies of your work. For presentations you can take things a step further than Powerpoint using Prezi, an online tool that changes the way in which presentations are structured and displayed to great effect – I’ve used it in workshops to cover some of the issues outlined in these blogs. Or, if you’re happy with Powerpoint but want to make a presentation available for quick browsing online and maybe add audio to it, SlideShare allows you to do just that. There are even image editing alternatives to Adobe Photoshop – like Pixlr – and some attempts at video makers too. At various points ODI has used a number of these tools to work on documents collaboratively, share our outputs to small groups in workshops or training sessions or make them public, and to open them up for discussion and commenting by others.
  • There are a number of options for storing datasets and creating data visualisations. At ODI we’ve used Zoho Creator as a database tool and linked that to the Zoho Reports charts and visualisation tool to power the graphs on Climate Funds Update (the website itself is delivered through Google Sites, by the way). However, if you don’t mind importing data as it changes from Google Docs, Excel or whatever database application you’re using (as opposed to having a live link to the data), other options for visualisations include Google Fusion Tables, or IBM Many Eyes.
  • If you want to track mentions of your organisation in the media, the blogosphere or social networks, there are a number of cheap tools. These include Google Alerts, Social Media Alerts, BackType and Technorati. These can save a lot of money spent developing keyword lists with traditional media monitoring services, and often find exactly the same content.
  • For books and publications you can publish  good-looking versions for browsing online using Issuu or Scribd, allow people to print books on demand  through Lulu, and sell copies of e-books or hard copies through the Amazon Marketplace, Google Checkout or Google ebookstore.

Some rules for ‘reusing the wheel’

Though there are many different tools and content sites listed above, this is just a small portion of the whole. New tools are being added every day to carry out new functions, or replace functionality previously carried out on a desktop computer with an equivalent powered by servers in the cloud.  With each one comes new and engaging content. The most important aspect of these ‘wheels’ is that they are generally easy to use: tools are made with a novice consumer user in mind, and have video demonstrations and tutorials available to guide you through. The content you’ve created can also be copied or embedded elsewhere at the click of a button.

So, if ease-of-use isn’t a problem, what else should you consider when ‘reusing a wheel’?

  • Choose the right tools or content for the task. With many different variations on the same tools and content available, understanding the differences between one and the other can be essential. When comparing two similar tools, you can even ‘reuse the wheel’ to make the task easier, as someone will probably have written a blog or article on the differences and experiences already.
  • Be prepared for change. Tools evolve constantly, and content gets updated. Some tools are even shut down. So be ready for this. If you’re using a specific tool to produce a paper that is incredibly important to your think tank, use one made by a large company like Google or that you’re sure is not going to be shut down. If you’re reusing content created by someone else, make sure you reference the date in which you accessed it and, if possible, keep a local copy in case it gets taken down in the future (or link to an archive copy on the internet archive, which should never go missing).
  • Be realistic about what is and isn’t possible in your organisation. Some of the tools listed above can bypass steps on the ‘pyramid of online communications methods’ I mentioned in the first post in this series. But most of the tools outlined above rely on constant internet connectivity, and often higher bandwidth connections, so if you work in a low-bandwidth environment these are not going to be sensible tools to employ.
  • If you want people to use new tools in their daily work, find tools that provide maximum benefits with minimum additional input. Social bookmarking is a good example: it replaces an existing tool (favourites or bookmarks) so carries no extra effort to use, but can allow for sharing of links and resource libraries (a public good) and make it easy for a user to keep their bookmarks with them wherever they go, even if they change or lose their computer (a personal good). You are much more likely to succeed in getting people to take up new tools if you can work them into existing business processes.
  • Don’t just take – contribute! As Enrique Mendizabal has explained elsewhere on this blog, open innovation is a solution think tanks can use not just to benefit from, but also to participate in, the sharing of knowledge online. Consider publishing papers with Creative Commons licences rather than copyright, as there are lots of advantages to allowing freer use of your ideas. Shakespeare didn’t have copyright to stop his material being reused, and look where that got him: one of the most influential writers ever known.
  • Exploit your content niche. With so many people producing content worldwide, think tanks should stick to producing the kinds of content they are good at, which often means publications and events. If a think tank needs to step outside their niche, perhaps in producing films, it is worth partnering with others who have the necessary experience and skills. These kinds of partnerships can make the end product better and create more persuasive content for telling the policy story.

That’s it! These are the three strands to ODI’s strategy to respond to the ‘digital disruption’ of traditional communications that I outlined in my first blog. I think that, taken together, they tell a useful story about how this response can be about more than just adjustment to change, but instead point to ways and means in which think tanks like ODI could, over the coming years, be able to take advantage of change.

In writing these four blogs, there have been a few areas that I’ve left aside for later discussion. At some point in the coming months, I plan to write more about some of the questions and issues raised by these three strategic goals. I have at least one blog in my mind on the long-term conclusions one could come to through a reading of ODI’s strategy: the demise of the traditional corporate website and IT team. I also think there is a lot to say about how to monitor and evaluate digital communications based on this strategy, and will return to this soon.

For the time being though, please do send through any comments or questions you have on this, or any of the other blogs. I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

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