One of the recent digital mandates that we worked on at Edelman India is for Infosys Prize. When we met them back in mid-2011, the agenda from Infosys Science Foundation was clear – can we use social media and make the Infosys Prize more relevant to larger sets of people outside the choice circle of academia, science students and scientific community, who would anyway be interested in the awards, each year?

It was a very interesting challenge since it is more about what and how we say, than where we say it. The ‘where’ part was clear for us – social media. But what do we say and how do we say it?

Think about it – if someone told you that Dr.XYZ won the Nobel Prize for economics, unless you are an economist or have an active interest in economics or is an active quizzer, you may not care enough to know more about why this person has been chosen for the Nobel prize. The same seeming disinterest applies to something like Infosys Prize too.

So, the question was – how do we say things differently this time, to interest different sets of people who couldn’t care less.

That brought us to the kind of things Infosys Science Foundation communicates, around the awards. Besides the announcement of winners around November and the actual award ceremony in January every year, the award citations are the most important piece of communication. The citations explain why a person has been chosen for the award and how that person’s work impacts India, our community and the world.

But, as normal people, we have limited interest in going through technical sounding citations.

Consider the citation for Dr.Kalyanmoy Deb, Infosys Prize winner 2011 for Engineering and Computer Science.

Professor Kalyanmoy Deb has made fundamental contributions to the emerging field of Evolutionary Multi-objective Optimization (EMO) where his work has led to significant advances in the areas of non-linear constraints, decision uncertainty, programming and numerical methods, computational efficiency of large-scale problems and optimization algorithms. He has demonstrated how fundamental ideas of optimization and computing principles can be combined to devise efficient algorithms that are fast, accurate and scalable. His recent studies on handling challenging practical multi-criteria optimization problems make his research pragmatic and applicable to multiple disciplines. Deb’s research addresses both fundamental and applied aspects of optimization, developed synergistic and computationally efficient algorithms, and demonstrates their usefulness in industries such as logistics and refineries.

Even as a normal post graduate, with active interest in current affairs, I may not be inclined to ponder enough on that citation to understand why Prof.Kalyanmoy Deb won the prize in 2011. I won’t blame the citation though – it has been written for a specific set of audiences, who not only understand, but also appreciate the complexity of work in the research by Prof.Kalyanmoy Deb.

So, what we assumed with this situation is that we need to,

  1. Communicate the work of each scientist in simplified language – something that the normal, educated man-on-the-road can empathize with
  2. Communicate it in a format that may hold their attention – beyond standard text, given the attention deficit disorder that plagues most people these days

We zeroed in on comic strips as a format, to address the second point. (click on the image to go to the Infosys Prize 2011 Laureates page and see each of the 6 comic strips)

But, the first point was more difficult – it meant we had to speak extensively with our contacts in Infosys Science Foundation, the concerned scientists who have won the awards and research for ourselves online…to understand and rephrase the same citation in simplified language.

We took key phrases from each award citation, researched extensively around the topic and built our storyboards for each comic strip.

For example, after sufficient reading on ‘multi objective optimization’, we selected a simple example from our everyday lives to explain the complex concept – the battery/power requirements of smartphones. After all, who hasn’t complained about his/her smartphone battery needing a charge every evening after a day of heavy duty internet access? I’m sure everyone of such folks have wondered how mobile brands consider this topic and wonder about progress in battery technology.

With Dr.Imran Siddiqi, it was quite easy to build the storyboard – the man had a phenomenal achievement behind him and the best that we could do is to add the back story on how he came about to this research and make the story interesting. Result – starting way back, from the times of Gregor J Mendel, the guy who we all have read about, in school!

The stories of Prof.Kannan Soundararajan and Prof.Sriram Ramaswamy, we found, are startlingly similar if we consider the basis of their research – both are intent on making sense of randomness in nature. There are so many things in this world and life that we assume as random and chaotic, but these are the gentlemen who are trying to use science to make sense of seeming randomness!

Dr.Raghuram Rajan and Dr.Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s were the most difficult citations. Here we have 2 people who are phenomenally good in their subject, but perhaps don’t have specific stories that we can build a comic around! So, we went broader and dug into their past to look at things that would make for a good reading. So, the actual story of how Dr.Raghuram Rajan predicted the 2008-09 global financial crisis, in 2005, in front of Alan Greenspan. And, an older Indian Express article that Dr.Pratap Bhanu Mehta had written gave us an insight into his kind of thinking…that seems very, very different from the kind of thoughts presented around a complex topic like corruption in India.

Perhaps the best way to see it is to first read the actual citations and then look at the comic – to fully grasp the kind of effort that has gone behind simplifying each of the winner’s profiles and body of work!

Once the storyboards were ready, the next task was to make a few decisions on the format of the comic strip. We wanted it in black and white, to ensure that color doesn’t distract the reader since the content of the comics are quite heavy in any case. The 2nd decision was to not make the comics too basic (like xkcd), but maintain a balance between the script and the animation. We were lucky to find the right partner in Divya Kannan (of DAK Graphic Designs) who not only understood the basic requirement, but also did her own research to add life to each of the 6 stroyboards.

The kind of feedback we have seen for this effort has been phenomenal! Not just from normal people-on-the-road, but also from media/journalists who loved the effort Infosys Science Foundation undertook this time to make the awards accessible to larger set of people outside its perceived target user group.

I rarely use this blog to write about client work – I’d obviously prefer others talking about our digital work. But this project is a bit different since it was also personally fulfilling! It had us reading, researching a lot more than what an average digital mandate allows us to. Not just that – the fundamental challenge here was to wonder about the kind of content that we can create than worry about the actual social media channel-related details. The focus was clear – create interesting, useful content and people will read/appreciate it. And it seems to have worked!