The Land of the Ancient Pharaohs Goes Digital

October 10, 2016

The British Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, recently celebrated the launch of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB). In a giant step at democratizing information, the EKB is a new portal that provides all Egyptian citizens with universal access to quality research and educational resources. The project is an ambitious online initiative, with participation from some of the most prominent publishing houses in the world, such as Oxford University Press, National Geographic, Discovery, Cambridge, and Britannica—including Britannica School, Britannica Academic, Britannica Library, and E-Books.

Our senior vice president, Michael Ross, had the honor of speaking at this event on October 3, 2016. Below is an excerpt from his comments:

A couple of interesting facts about digital content, access, and usage that should provide some context to our purpose in gathering here this evening and why I think the Egyptian Knowledge Bank is solving a problem better than any aggregators and content providers that I know:

More than 55% of the world's information resides behind firewalls. That includes the billions of pages searchable on the free Internet.

Universities and libraries have tried to deal with this information overload by acquiring access to hundreds of premium, scholarly, and professional databases and making them available through their network gateways. But only about 6% of their patrons use their own institution's paid-for databases. (I've seen the percentage stated as high as 13% for public libraries; but in any case the number is shockingly low and discouraging to those who are in charge of acquiring databases with the intent that they will be valued and widely used by their constituents.)

So this building-by-building approach does not seem to solve the problem of how to make premium content available to a large population. Lack of awareness often accounts for why there is low usage of databases via internal networks. Other contributing factors include easy access to the free Internet as well as ingrained search habits that are hard to break.

Learners are missing the excellent resources available to them at their own institutions and opting instead for searching randomly on the Web, where too many choices of unequal value all compete for our attention and time. The Internet contains too much information without sufficient guideposts for effective use and maximum productivity. And the amount of information is increasing exponentially on a daily basis. So the problem of information overload will only get worse, which will in turn make it harder to find the most useful information we need.

Still—and fair enough—traffic and usage have become the two key metrics in determining whether an institution continues to subscribe to a particular Web site or database. Yet institutions do not make it easy enough to find them. Quality, well-curated sites are often more than one click away, sometimes several clicks away, by which time the average digital user has lost patience and moved on—most likely to Google. We have trained ourselves to “just Google it.” Traffic overall to internal network databases pales compared to traffic on search engines. This means that most of us are not getting to the best stuff, and without being aware of it, we might be getting biased information or information that comes with an agenda.

Much of the information on free Web sites might actually be accurate and trustworthy, but the average user today does not know how to distinguish one site from another or how to evaluate the sites and the information on them in order to determine which ones they should trust. Very little is being done about this. In fact, we almost never hear about this as a pressing problem. Even trained librarians and educators often encourage their staff to recommend wider use of the free Internet and Web sites, even though some sites may not be curated--or worse, purposely misleading.

I assume that when administrators encourage this behavior they do so in order to save money—to justify dropping spottily used sites from their budgets—and not because they really believe that the free Internet offers the best possible choices. At least that would be my most generous conclusion. Pressure is being put on schools, institutions of higher learning, and libraries to lower their expenditures by dropping content databases, even those that are frequently used, are relatively inexpensive, and serve the needs of a broad spectrum of learners.

In this economic environment, which seems to worsen each year, too many students will go through their years of study never understanding the difference between curated and non-curated content and without knowing, or not bothering to determine, whether a Web site is trustworthy or not. But like anything else in life, you get what you pay for, and we need both publishers and media specialists to continue to make the case for assigning value (and a budget) to trust and accountability to those responsible for acquiring content so that all learners have equal access to accurate, balanced information.

Based on high usage and renewal rates, most Britannica users strongly believe our services represent a great value. Quality scholarship, frequent updating, constant checks and balances, and innovative technology all require substantial resource commitments. I don't think any of our cultures, east or west, want a world where the main sources of our information rely solely on crowd-sourcing, volunteerism, amateurism, and Web sites without accountability. Expertise and professionalism still have an important role to play because our society can't progress without them.

We can, of course, accommodate new sources of information without diminishing the role of authority. We do not have to reject long-established processes that help ensure certain standards in order to be open to innovation and to embrace change. And sometimes we must disrupt our own business models in order to avoid becoming a casualty of progress and risk extinction. Even though the "digital age of knowledge" is in its infancy, already we see a tendency to take the easy way out, in spite of the risks. In this case the risks may not involve life or death, but they could result in opinions or decisions without the proper consideration of the facts that generated them.

The only way to change behavior over time is to make premium content more accessible and to find a way to value and pay for it. Advertising does this for some content, but this is not a perfect solution. This model penalizes Web sites that are either too broad in subject matter without targeting a specific demographic or whose developers don't understand how to optimize search engines and attract readers. Also, academic and especially demanding users don't want the interruption and distraction caused by advertising, which can also be inappropriate for some consumers. Most subscription sites are meant to be free of advertising, and all of them are assumed to be well curated, safe, relevant, and accountable--qualities that sites on the free Internet do not have to strive for.

This is why the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB) is not only a visionary initiative but an extremely important one. By investing in some of the best scholarship and most engaging learning options available and making them universally accessible to all of Egypt's citizens,

EKB has made it as easy as possible for everyone, regardless of their economic position or level of education, to have access to the best, most accurate, and most current information, as balanced and free of bias as possible.

We have seen other similar initiatives to this that have adopted Britannica services in such diverse countries as Brazil, Wales, Ireland, and Finland. But there is nothing that I'm aware of on the scale of the EKB, which assembled hundreds of quality databases and e-books that together offer everyone access to the knowledge most worth having in all disciplines.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, during the Age of Enlightenment, an eclectic group of scholars, printers, and illustrators in the small town of Edinburgh, Scotland, set out to organize and put into print the sum total of the world's knowledge. It seemed like a daunting task at the time, but in 1768 this goal resulted in the publication of the first Encyclopædia Britannica in three volumes. Over the ensuing decades, the popular set grew to six volumes, then 20, and finally 32, until, in 2012, we at the Britannica company made the decision to discontinue printing this venerable set of books. The market had hit a tipping point, and the many advantages of our digital products were now more desirable than the bulky printed volumes, which are expensive to produce and distribute to one customer at a time, become out of date quickly, and are limited to static visuals, among other shortcomings for contemporary learners.

But Britannica's tradition of accuracy, scholarship, and its mission to summarize and bring knowledge to life carried on and greatly expanded as an entirely digital product line. And it benefited from evolving technologies and more reliable broadband, which enabled continual updates, instantaneous corrections, interactivity, and most importantly, the ability to reach millions of people at once, in any time zone, any time of the day, and on any device.

When Britannica first published an online product 30 years ago, the Internet was mainly an academic tool, mostly for e-mail. Today, it's ubiquitous and used by everyone regardless of their age or training. Thirty years may seem like a long time, but we should keep in mind that the World Wide Web is in its infancy, and universal access to knowledge is still a dream.

For 500 years our primary medium for sharing knowledge via the written word was print; today, even though print has not been obsolesced, and may never be, we increasingly seek our information on digital devices. It's hard to imagine what the digital landscape will look like 30 years from now.

Britannica, which has a long and storied past, is one of the oldest publishing brands in the English language still active today and perhaps the best known. Yet we describe ourselves as a 250-year-old start-up. We are constantly having to reinvent ourselves to not only continue our mission but to attract and keep readers and learners engaged, to earn their trust every day, and to provide knowledge and information in a format that learners prefer and that gives us the best opportunity to deliver information consistent with the promise of the brand.

Britannica's relationship with EKB is critical to our goals of staying relevant as user interests change with time and with advances in technology and to be accessible to learners however and wherever they want to receive their information.

The EKB has created a model environment for the effective distribution of digital content, which should position it as a leader in how to best make important works of knowledge available to as many people as possible. At the same time, the EKB presents a challenge to others to take notice and follow suit. The EKB has gone a long way toward achieving the democratization of information without compromising quality and while preserving their key values.

We look forward to working even more closely with the EKB in the months ahead to help ensure the project's continual success and growth and to expanding its influence to other regional markets.