During President Barack Obama’s January’s State of the Union address, citizens could follow along in real time with an online slide presentation which showed – in pictures and graphics – the major points the president was making just as he was making them.

The technique brought the viewers into the presentation in a way that simply watching or listening to the event could not. Visually, each of the president’s points was portrayed in a striking way that cemented the ideas in viewers’ minds better than a simple verbal presentation could do – even with the bright lights and grand chamber of the House of Representatives as a venue.

It has the potential to connect people to government, so it’s something federal officials in all agencies should look at, given its considerable potential.” – Darrell West

It was the online document sharing software technology that made this visual imaging possible. Today, if you go to the White House website, you can see the State of the Union with the slideshow next to it in a single screen.

And it’s not just the White House that is making use of this user-friendly online technique to connect with voters. From NASA to the GSA, departments and agencies are using user-friendly graphic presentations like SlideShare, Scribd, DocStoc, Issuu, eDocr and others to connect with voters.

But while the technology is catching on, there’s a long way to go to get the rest of the government involved, according to the experts, who say that almost every agency could find a way to use the technology if they experimented with it.

“A few agencies are using it. But it has the potential to connect people to government, so it’s something federal officials in all agencies should look at, given its considerable potential,” said Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution think tank. “It’s a way to share information and people like that. They find it easy to use and it’s a way for agencies to get information to the general public.”

Experts say one agency – NASA – is a model of a great way to use the technology.
“One of the standouts is really NASA,” said John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates open government. “You can follow many of their programs. Their work is well-suited to sharing with the public and it is a definite standout.”

Stephanie Schierholz, NASA’s first social media manager who recently left the agency for the private sector, said NASA has been using SlideShare, one of the software platforms since May. She said one of the reasons the space agency is so attuned to using such techniques stems from their 1968 charter, which calls for the agency to communicate what it is doing to the public.

She said SlideShare allows visitors to browse through the site’s information without downloading it, as opposed to downloading a PDF document, for example, which takes time and is sometimes unwieldy.

One of the most popular features, she said, stemmed from the recently ended Shuttle program, in which images of the launch, taken with cameras mounted to the sides of the shuttle, would be posted on the site.

“It’s an incredible view,” she said. Another use of the SlideShare technology involves Space Station astronauts sending back images of weather on Earth – hurricanes for example – that make excellent viewing and sharing. She said many visitors to NASA.gov then repost the images on other social media, like Facebook and Twitter, which further expands the reach of the agency.

But what about agencies where the images don’t come from space and aren’t nearly as dramatic? Those dry reports, for example that are the bane of every government agency?
The White House is leading the way on that aspect, turning the State of the Union into graphics and pictures and charts.

Sarah Bernard , who works in the White House’s Social Media department, said the SlideShare technique made the speech “wide-reaching, easy to use and understandable.”

The White House is also putting other information out that way, including not just speeches but documents and reports.

“The White House new media department is always interested in having out efforts seen, understood and open for comment to the entire United States population. We use as many tools as we can,” Bernard said.

Ross Mayfield, vice president of business development at SlideShare said there are three reasons that federal agencies are turning to programs like his: mission, mandate and charter. NASA, for example, has the mandate; the White House has the mission.

“We have the dubious honor of posting the most significant political document of our time (Obama’s long-form birth certificate) on the White House,” he said. “The timing in which they released that was just perfect,” he added, because it was just as his company was hitting its stride with the White House.

The federal government is perfect for the technology because it “produces more document-formatted content than any other organization on the planet,” he said. “What’s interesting about SlideShare is that it serves as a bridge between a document centric government at the social web.”

The Sunlight Foundation’s Wonderlich suggests that agencies that want to use the information sharing platforms have a dedicated team of people who are looking into how to make information more accessible. He cautions, however, that the outside programs should not be the only place where information “lives,” and that the agencies should make sure that by posting public information on outside platforms they are not in advertently making themselves subject to licensing restrictions.

The Congressional Budget Office, a repository of exactly the kind of dry documents that adapt well to sharing, also is using the technology.

Michelle Laird, spokeswoman for Scribd, the other major document- sharing site, pointed to the General Services Administration’s decision to put millions of pages of documents online with technology like Scribd.

“It’s simplicity,” she said, explaining why government departments like the software. “It’s such an easy platform to use. We accept almost every type of document can be uploaded onto the platform.”

And both SlideShare and Scribd and other platforms are free to the government. They allow readers to search for keywords in the document without downloading.

It’s easy to implement, Laird added, and makes a world of difference for accessibility.

“PDFs are hidden in these ugly websites and are buried so far down that it’s hard for people to see what’s going on. It’s an easy way to be more transparent and to shed light on the kind of work that is being done on our behalf as citizens,” she said.