The Open Think Tank Directory: a journey

18 April 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]

In 2016 the idea of the Open Think Tank Directory was born: to create a public directory to benefit the entire think tank community. The directory would organise the scattered information available on think tanks, be open, transparent and able to be updated by think tanks themselves. In 2017 we developed it, in 2018 we launched it, and in 2019 we aim to strengthen the use of the database and make visible its potential. But in order to foster its use (by academics, think tanks, funders and everyone interested in think tanks and evidence-based policy) we must first reflect on the journey we have had so far.

Developing the idea came naturally to OTT. Over the years we have increased our services, knowledge and initiatives for (and on) think tanks and the broader evidence- informed policymaking world. The Directory aimed to solve the problem of a lack of publicly available and organised information on think tanks (and other policy research centres and expertise bodies). Thinking about it (dreaming it?) was the easy part. The challenge was to bring it to life.

To make it happen we received funding from the Open Society Foundations and the Regional Programme Energy Security and Climate Change in Latin America from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Their funding enabled us to finance the titanic task of identifying think tanks and sourcing information worldwide, as well as developing the website. The first question and challenge we encountered was, what exactly is a think tank? We settled for broad inclusive criteria: the organisation had to carry out some form or research with the aim of informing public policy and have an identity of its own. When the organisation was on the boundaries of this definition, we decided to include them, highlighting that they did not exactly fit our definition, but that they did fulfil some think tank functions. Additionally, deciding on which variables to source information was an editing exercise. Categorising, and editing implies that the nuances would be lost, but enables information to be comparable. We settled on making information comparable. Finally, finding the information proved challenging as, apart from language difficulties, each organisation organises it differently, which led to a detective-like process of sourcing information.

In 2018, we officially launched the website and ran a communications campaign with the following objectives: generate visibility for the Directory, motivate think tanks not on the Directory to create their profiles, and motivate think tanks on the Directory to complete their profiles. Given the objectives of the campaign our target audiences were: thinktankers and policy researchers (to increase the amount of information on the database, and to ensure that profiles are owned by the think tanks); potential donors (to increase funding to improve the website and expand it to new regions); and academics (in particular those studying think tanks or working in the evidence-based policy sector to whom the database could be useful in their research).

The communications campaign included: emails to 1,530 organisations to let them know that they had been included in the Directory; more than 250 tailored tweets tagging organisations to generate visibility; and several Facebook and Instagram posts. As a result, and through the year, more than 100 organisations have been in touch with us to update or create their profiles, and more than 88 people have asked to download the database. The database now holds information on 2,718 think tanks. Out of the more than 60 pieces of data that we aim to have for all organisations (including longitudinal data since 2016) the average of complete information for the database is 30%, ranging from 9% (name, description, website and country usually) to 87%. We believe this to be a success, but we want more.

Thus, in 2019 we will focus on using and sharing the information in the database to show what can be done with it. We will promote its use not only among think tanks and funders but also to think tank scholars, as we believe it is a valuable resource for everyone. Since we started collecting data in 2016, for some organisations we have data going back three years, one of the aims is to start showing trends, whenever possible. We also aim to strengthen the gender information that it holds, as of now we have some form of gender data (founder, leader or staff break down) for more than 1,100 think tanks, but it is not complete and so it can only give a partial picture of gender in think tanks. Our plans also include participating in data sprints, to find interesting ways to share the findings. We’ll work hard to strengthen the use of the database and make visible its potential, but we need your help: if you work in a think tank, complete your profile; if you are a scholar, use the Directory and share your work; help us correct or update the information; and most importantly if you find it useful, spread the word.