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Your data deserve better than a PDF

By Dave Connell  ::  March 27th, 2015

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For think tanks and research institutions, presenting data in PDFs is like smoking in the 1950s. Everyone does it, everyone likes it, it’s perfectly socially acceptable—but in the back of their heads, everyone kind of knows it’s probably bad for them.

Think tanks and research institutions, I am here to confirm your suspicions and help you face your addiction: the PDF is a bad habit that is killing you slowly.

It’s easy to see why we’ve become so addicted to the PDF. The data and reports we produce are often long and technical, and for much of our existence, the primary use-case for these reports was print first—you delivered 80 copies to a symposium, you presented the report during a meeting with a congressional staffer, or you leafed through it in your office while working on your own research.

But times have changed, dramatically and quickly. The symposium you used to trek across town for is now webcast and archived so you can watch it anywhere, the congressional staffer wants you to email her three bullet points so she can read it on her phone between meetings, and your reports are now written on a laptop with multiple browser tabs open to multiple data sets.

Yet here we sit, reading reports laid out for print but displayed digitally by a technology that hasn’t changed much since it was invented in 1991. It’s like seeing someone with shoes on their hands—or smoking in 2015.

Studies show PDFs are bad for your research institution’s health

If you want someone to read your report and act on your data, the PDF is a bad choice. There’s actual data— ironically written and produced in a PDF—to support this.

Last May, the World Bank conducted a study to see if anyone was actually reading their PDFs. The results should thoroughly depress any researcher who strives to have their work make a difference in the world. Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham summarized the bleak findings:

Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.

While we haven’t undertaken a formal study, we see similar issues here at the Urban Institute.

Although PDFs comprise the bulk of our content—and certainly our most valuable content—they account for less than 4 percent of our total pageviews. None of the PDFs we’ve published since March 1 of last year has received over 5,000 pageviews, and only nine have received more than 1,000 pageviews.

(Note: Web analytics nerds may quibble with counting pageviews for PDF performance instead of downloads. With most modern browsers opening PDFs in the browser without forcing a download, I consider this a reasonable proxy for traffic.)

To me, the evidence is compelling: in an increasingly digital and mobile world, continuing to rely on the PDF greatly increases our risk of becoming irrelevant.

So what can we do to stop our PDF addiction?

Like any addiction, we can’t quit cold turkey and expect to be successful. So, when we unveil our new website next month, we won’t be purging PDFs from the database. On the contrary, we’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time painstakingly moving our research library—all PDFs—into a new system that can display and organize them much better than we currently do.

That said, with the launch of our new site, we are starting to take steps to wean ourselves off the PDF, including:

  • Surfacing every PDF on a webpage using a mobile-responsive PDF viewer
  • Rolling out a new single-column report template that is easier to consume on digital devices
  • Developing select HTML-first briefs and reports that will display in an article format and include downloadable and shareable charts and graphs
  • Providing overview pages and expanded abstracts that surface key insights and policy recommendations from reports, allowing readers to get a sense of the research before diving into the PDF

We’re adding these tools to the current strategies we’re using to highlight insights and actionable data for a wide variety of audiences on a wide variety of platforms.

From blog posts to data visualizations, every strategy is designed to drive traffic back to the original research, and though the numbers aren’t exactly through the roof, our efforts are working. Pageviews and unique pageviews to our PDFs have grown by more than 30 percent over the last year.

We may never break our addiction entirely (and, to be honest, we probably shouldn’t) but at Urban, we’re constantly looking for healthy alternatives to the PDF and looking forward to a brighter, less print-first digital world.

Illustration by Tim Meko


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