Digital tools for think tanks: videos

15 August 2012

[Editor’s note: This article is also part of a series on Think Tanks and Video]

We have put together some examples of the types of videos that think tanks can use for several purposes, as part of an initiative to illustrate the array of communication tools available. The videos have been taken from several well known think tanks, such as Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as from universities such as Stanford. In addition, the Igarape Institute has shared some of its own experiences: Video and data visualisation examples for think tanks, from the Igarape Institute.

Types of videos

MOOCs: Perfect for academic think tanks or think tanks associated to universities

The first type of video that a think tank can use is a MOOC – a massive open online course. Stanford’s School of Engineering has been offering these types of courses since 2011, as part of a program called Stanford Engineering Everywhere. MOOCs not only entail videos but other course material such as handouts, assignments and exams, which can be downloaded. MOOC videos are usually in lecture format, and include charts, graphs and text, to help emphazise important ideas. Their target audience is quite broad, as they are directed towards anyone who wishes to take an online course from these universities.

Recently there have been several initiatives and projects to spread the use of MOOCs. In May of this year, Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched edX, a site that offers free online courses taught by Harvard and MIT professors. They were later joined by the University of California – Berkeley. Another such project is Coursera, also launched this year by sixteen universities including Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University. Coursera offers, to date, 116 courses on a wide variety of topics.

Promo: better than a static ‘about us’ page

The second type of video is promotional. These are meant to provide viewers an overview of what the think tank is about, and what ideas the institution will put foward. The Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting promotional video (with celebrities included) that explains the importance of an institution of its nature. Each speaker gives his or her opinion on why paying attention to world affairs and global politics is important, and how the Council on Foreign Relations contributes to knowledge and policy on these topics.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) also put together a series of promotional videos for their 50th anniversary, in which they ask ODI staff members or directors of other think tanks and institutions what they think has been ODI’s greatest contribution to the field of development, and what changes would they like to see in this field by 2050.

Animations: excellent to get the main arguments of a study across to a wide as well as a more focused audience

The third example is an animated video. Animations must be visually atractive, and have the purpose of explaining complex processes in a simple and engaging manner. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), a British charity that supports innovative research and development projects, has a series of animated videos discussing topics such as the financial crisis. These kinds of videos may be used to target younger audiences in a less academic format. In the example below, they discuss whether or not the world should begin considering another type of economic model, considering the recent global financial crisis:

The Argentinean think tank Centro de Implementacion de Politicas Publicas para la Equidad y el  Crecimiento (CIPPEC), alongside Nitaplan, a Nicaraguan institute focused on local, urban and rural development, created a series of animated videos (in Spanish) explaining issues such as the wood industry and its relation with poverty in Nicaragua. Unlike RSA’s videos, these are directed towards a more technical, academic audience.

CIPPEC also has animated videos that explain problems in national issues such as the Argentinean health care system, public transport, and the public education system.These videos are also directed more towards individuals who have interest in academia and public policy.

Talking heads: why not have the researcher say it him or herself?

There are also videos of interviews and debates on particular topics. Interviews are usually in ‘talking head’ format, meaning that the camera focuses only on the speaker while they are giving their view on an issue or explaining a topic. Brookings has many such videos of known public service officials, politicians and intellectuals:

Think tanks can also illustrate the impact of certain policies that they may or may not support by interviewing those individuals affected by said policy. The Centre for American Progress conducted interviews of young Americans asking them what no cost birth control, as upheld by Obamacare, meant to them:

Reporting on findings: experts advice

Or simply use the video to give the researcher an opportunity to present his or her ideas directly to the reader. This is an example of a video made with very low tech by the new Policy Monitoring and Research Centre in Zambia:


Or the Center on Foreign Relations 3 things you need to know about key topics’ videos which used a talking head to turn it into a Policy Brief on video:

Debates and events

Debates and events can also be recorded, as well as press briefings. The latter are used to announce research results that may have a possible impact on policy, such as this video by the Centre on Strategic and International Studies on its report delivered to Congress on U.S. posture strategy in the Asia – Pacific Region:

Debates and events can be broadcast live and may be recorded so that it is more available to those who could not attend. Ustream is a great tool for this and can be set up rather quickly. Your laptop’s webcam will be enough in most situations.

Reporting and transparency

CIPPEC, in Argentina, uses a video to report on its work and funding over the previous year:

What do do with the videos?

It is necessary to consider the best way to transmit academic knowledge through videos. Format and length are important, since the goal is to hold the attention of the viewer. However, academics can’t solely rely on charisma and trust when communicating to online viewers. Even though traditional academic teaching methods aren’t suited for video format (except, perhaps, MOOCs), we are still dealing with knowledge that must be backed up by evidence, something that short videos do not always allow. If  veracity is an issue, then think tanks should employ additional materials that provide supporting evidence for what they transmit through video.

There are several distribution channels available that think tanks can use. The two most used channels are through the institutional web page, as a separate page, or through a YouTube channel. Most of the examples in this blog came from the organisations’ YouTube channels, and these could be found on links in the institutional web page or through a YouTube search.

Other distribution channels are, for example, StorifySocialcam and Vimeo. Storify is a very interesting tool that allows organisations to create narratives by bringing together media that is found across the Web, and embed them on other web pages. Think tanks could make their videos even more attractive by adding Twitter conversations and photographs that are relevant to the video content, thus creating a more compelling story. Storify offers a tour to teach users how to use its service.

Socialcam is a smartphone app, similar to Instagram but for videos, that allows the user to upload videos from their phone, edit them, and share them with other Socialcam users. Finally, Vimeo is another video sharing site, whose main difference with YouTube is that it allows uploading unlimited HD videos for a monthly fee. Vimeo, Storify and Socialcam all allow sharing on Facebook and Twitter.