5 reasons why Document Cloud rocks

In the wake of the whole WikiLeaks uproar, this seems like a good time to talk about how we provide public documents to the public.

The folks behind DocumentCloud.org have been thinking about this for a while. You can read all about how the organization came to be here.

The biggest problem with the way most news outlets offer public documents is that they do so with no help to the reader. They get a big, fat PDF full of scanned documents, embed a link in the story telling readers they can see the documents for themselves, and that’s it. Here, dear reader, sift through these thousand or so pages and then tell me how awesome my report and analysis of these documents are, because we believe in transparency. Oh, and while you’re at it, I hid a needle in that haystack over there — see if you can find it.

With Document Cloud, you can easily provide your reader with a useful road map to the important information. Here are the top 5 reasons why Document Cloud is awesome.

1. Nothing to download — Everything shows up in a web browser. No worries about whether or not the file is safe to download, whether you have the latest version of Acrobat reader to view the content or trying to figure out where exactly your downloaded document is on your hard drive. Most importantly, keeping the doc in the browser means your readers can still access your navigation.

Here’s a shot of how it looks on the Missourian’s website:

Now isn't this much nicer than viewing in Acrobat? Especially if you want to keep your news organization's logo in readers' view.

2. Follow the yellow-tabbed road map — See those little yellow tabs in the image above? That’s the actual annotation. Let’s check it out in a different view:

The yellow tabs have the look and feel of Acrobat's comment system.

Readers can simply click on the yellow tabs to find out more information from the reporter. In the above case, you can learn all about the criminal history of the plaintiff in this particular lawsuit. And if readers click the annotation button, they can skip through the non-annotated parts of the document and just get to the stuff the reporter believes is important.

This view just shows readers what has been annotated.

So, it offers the best of both worlds. For readers on the go, you skip right to the annotation. For readers who have the time, you can still view the entire document (and serve that Fifth Estate role keeping the media honest, just in case the reporter forgot to highlight something or inserted an error in the annotation) in the browser. Document Cloud also gives the reader the option of downloading the original document without annotation.

3. Private notes (aka blue notes) — When you’re talking about big projects with lots of public documents, chances are you’ll have more than one journalist reading and analyzing documents at any one time. The private notes feature lets journalists leave notes for each other, like in this example (redacted email addresses are my own doing since they’re not germane to this blog post):

Use the blue notes to communicate with other journalists who you are teaming with on the project

Blue notes work just like yellow notes — except only the journalists can see them, not the public. Again, very handy for team assignments.

4. Ability to pull text — Say you want to copy a snippet of text to include as a quote in the story or as a pullout. Instead of opening Acrobat to get this done, simply go to the text tab.

Document Cloud will automatically pull all of the text from the document into a text-only window, which makes it very easy to copy and paste snippets of information

Just to see how well this worked, I tried putting a PDF of a print page created in InDesign into Document Cloud. All of the text from the page was there, though it wasn’t arranged in the most coherent fashion (i.e. breakout boxes were mixed in with the text of stories, and line breaks were arbitrary). So, if you’re looking to pull text from the PDF of a page proof, there are probably much better ways to go. And besides, Document Cloud wasn’t really built for this anyway.

5. Customer support — When we first got on board with Document Cloud at the Missourian, I was stumped as to how we’d be able to integrate it into our website. I’m no technical genius (and I’m definitely not a programmer), so I dropped an e-mail to Amanda at Document Cloud. She got back to me in less than 24 hours and has continued to follow-up with me and our on-site programmer ever since. Document Cloud also keeps a pretty robust blog that documents changes and bug fixes.

Lastly, one other great thing about Document Cloud: You can make the documents public right away, then add the annotations later without having to re-upload anything or update any embedded code. It’s not only great for transparency and enterprise reporting, but immediacy as well. Gotta love that.

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