Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Has Twitter killed the media star? (or How I stopped worrying and learned to love social media)

By James Georgalakis

Credit: Stefano Corso/Pensiero
Back at the end of the last millennium my biggest preoccupation at work was how to secure more column inches for my employer.

As a press officer it was my job to feed carefully crafted press releases into the fax machine and get on the phone to pitch in the story. My success or failure to engage bored sounding interns manning the phones of busy news desks with a new report or announcement determined my organisation’s ability to set the news agenda, engage the attention of policymakers and raise profile.

Ten years on, social media has firmly established itself as a channel through which you could tell your stories and engage key opinion formers. But this was a slow transition and an organisations’ ability to pitch stories into traditional media outlets remained of paramount importance.

However, last June, the balance seemed to tip.

Perhaps in other sectors and in other contexts this has occurred many times before but at least here at the Institute of Development Studies it felt like a significant moment.

IDS was busy launching the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI).  The index provided scores for donor countries on their commitment to reducing hunger and undernutrition in terms of their aid spending, policies and endorsement of international agreements. Our strategy had been to coincide with the high profile UK-hosted Nutrition for Growth summit to maximise media interest.

Results were mixed. Despite around twenty pieces of media coverage, many of the most highly valued outlets we had hoped would cover it ignored us. Save the Children and the big NGOs, who were busy promoting their own stories for the hunger summit, with their enormous resources and access to media-friendly human interest stories and celebrities had the likes of the BBC pretty much sown up.
The tipping point: Social media versus traditional media 

But all was not lost. Our social media strategy was having a real and immediate impact in terms of engaging policymakers with the index.

We had carefully targeted key influencers on Twitter and key bloggers. Some of these were project partners, others were organisations we had identified through our stakeholder mapping as having a shared advocacy or research agenda.  We shared with these networks advance links to our assets including an infographic, a website and a short animated film. We met with them, briefed them in nutrition network meetings or simply fired off an email a few days ahead of the launch asking them if they could help. Once the launch was underway we also tweeted messages to some of our key followers.

The result of this strategy was that even if HANCI failed to make the grade in the news-room it was an instant hit on Twitter and in the blogosphere.Within hours of HANCI going live a shout went up from our Digital Communications Officer:

“Canada’s just tweeted HANCI!”

Sure enough, Julian Fantino, Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation tweeted Canada’s HANCI score.

This was followed-up by the Canadian government’s Nutrition Coordinator contacting IDS directly to get the full data. “The Dutch just tweeted” went another shout. Head of Food Security and Financial Sector at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Dutch Government Marcel Beukeboom tweeted: “disappointing 16th place for Netherlands. We are more ambitious than that. Interested in indicators to learn how to improve.”  By the following day the Index received an official response from Irish Aid, with a press release quoting Ireland’s Minister for Trade and Development Joe Costello welcoming the index.

In none of these cases could we find any obvious link to traditional media. There had been no Canadian press release, Dutch or Irish media coverage.

Duncan Green’s influential blog and retweets from key development and nutrition influencers like DFID, Oxfam, ONE, Concern, Action Against Hunger, Save the Children and the IF campaign really stirred things up. The top five tweets and re-tweets alone received more than 134,000 potential impressions. The most popular content was the infographic swiftly followed by our animation which was watched a thousand times in just a few days.

Weeks later, the reverberations continue. Just in, the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition have tweeted about the HANCI animation: “This video gave me goose bumps.

Targeted social media = real engagement

Am I heralding the death of traditional media and its usurpation by Twitter, Facebook and Google+?

Absolutely not, but this is still a watershed moment for me because it has provided such a blatant example of the primacy of social media in engaging relatively niche audiences with our research.

In this case Twitter was providing us with direct responses to HANCI from our target policymakers. This is exactly what we had set out to achieve. We want HANCI to be taken seriously by governments, and used in the advocacy of those that seek to hold them to account.

The news-room intern and the Today Programme night editor are no longer the only means of getting government ministers and NGOs to respond to our research. This is more than just the blurring of boundaries between traditional media and social media.If we can be innovative enough we can bypass traditional media altogether.

Of course, we are still reliant on intermediaries, in the form of Twitter followers and bloggers and occasionally the media itself. Traditional media coverage can still be enormously impactful especially in relation to more mainstream or topical political issues. But much as marginalised citizens around the world have been able to harness social media to make their voices heard, research organisations can use non-traditional media to engage key audiences around their research without having to rely upon the overstretched editor or broadcaster.

IDS already has a digital communications strategy that places social media at its core. But this recent experience provides reassurance that we are moving in the right direction.  I will always look back fondly on those days of the busy press office and the excitement of a story really taking off but I am glad that social media provides another dimension to engaging key decision makers and influencers around our work. Social media may not have killed the media star yet but it has certainly dimmed it a little.

This blog was originally published on WonkComms - what is the future for think tank and research communications? James Georgalakis is Head of Communications at the Institute of Development Studies. 

Other blogs by James Georgalakis on Impact and Learning: 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Open data and increasing the impact of research? It's a piece of cake!

By Duncan Edwards

I talk to a lot of friends and colleagues who work in research, knowledge intermediary, and development organisations about some of the open data work I’ve been doing in relation research communications. Their usual response is “so it’s about technology?” or “open data is about governance and transparency, right?”. Well no, it’s not just about technology and it’s broader than governance and transparency.

I believe that there is real potential for open data approaches in increasing the impact of research knowledge for poverty reduction and social justice. In this post I outline how I see Open Data fitting within a theory of change of how research knowledge can influence development.

Every year thousands of datasets, reports and articles are generated about development issues. Yet much of this knowledge is kept in ‘information silos’ and remains unreachable and underused by broader development actors. Material is either not available or difficult to find online. There can be upfront fees, concerns regarding intellectual property rights, fears that institutions/practitioners don’t have the knowhow, means or time to share, or political issues within an organisation that can mean this material is not used.

What is “Open data”? What is “Linked Open Data”? 

The Open Knowledge Foundation says “a piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike.”

The Wikipedia entry for Linked Data describes it as“a method of publishing structured data so that it can be interlinked and become more useful. It builds upon standard Web technologies such as HTTP and URIs, but rather than using them to serve web pages for human readers, it extends them to share information in a way that can be read automatically by computers. This enables data from different sources to be connected and queried…. the idea is very old and is closely related to concepts including database network models, citations between scholarly articles, and controlled headings in library catalogs.

So Linked Open Data can be described as Open Data which is published in a way that can be interlinked with other datasets. Think about two data sets with country categorisation – if you publish these as linked data, you can then make the link between related content between different datasets for any given country.

For more definitions and discussion on data see Tim Davies post "Untangling the data debate: definitions and implications".

Why should Open Data be of interest to research producers? 

The way in which the Internet and technology has evolved means that instead of simply producing a website from which people can consume your content, you can open up your content so that others can make use of, and link it in new and exciting ways.

There are many theories of change which look to articulate how research evidence can affect development policy and practice. The Knowledge Services department at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) works with a theory of change which views access to, and demand for, research knowledge, along with the capacity to engage effectively with it, as critical elements to research evidence uptake and use in relation to decision-making within development. Open Data has significant potential in relation to the ‘access to’ element of this theory of change.

Contextualisation and new spaces 

When we think about access to research knowledge – we should go beyond simply having access to a research document. Instead we must look at whether research knowledge is available in a suitable format and language, and whether it has been contextualised in a way which makes sense to an audience within a given environment.

I like to use a Data cake metaphor developed by Mark Johnstone to illustrate this - if we consider research outputs to be the data/ingredients for the cake, then we organise, summarise and catalogue this (i.e. add meta-data) to ‘bake’ into our information cake. We then present this information in a way in which we feel is most useful and “palatable” to our intended audiences with the intention they will consume it and be able to make use of new knowledge. It’s in this area that Open Data approaches can really increase the potential uptake of research – if you make your information/ content open it creates the possibility that other intermediaries can easily make use of this content to contextualise and present it to their own users in a way that is more likely to be consumed.

Essentially by opening up datasets of research materials you can reduce duplication, allow people to reuse, repurpose, remix this content in many more spaces thereby increasing the potential for research findings to be taken up and influencing change in the world.

While I see significant benefits in researchers making their outputs available and accessible in an open manner we must redress the dominance of knowledge generated in the global North. We need to continue to invest in the strengthening of intermediaries at local, national, and international levels to make use of research material and Open Data to influence positive change.

Duncan Edwards is the ICT Innovations Manager at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) - you can follow him on Twitter: @duncan_ids

NOTE: an admission on Open Access - The original article this post is based on, “Davies, T. and Edwards, D. (2012) 'Emerging Implications of Open and Linked Data for Knowledge Sharing in Development', IDS Bulletin 43 (5) 117-127”, published in the IDS Bulletin: “New Roles for Communication in Development?”. Ironically, considering it’s subject matter, is only partially open access (two free articles per issue). But you can access this article as green open access in Open Docs -