Collaboration takes a variety of forms, from small collaborations between a couple newsrooms in the same town to large cross-border collaborations that span continents. To those who are new to collaborating, these large-scale projects seem intimidating, but ICFJ Knight Fellow Jacopo Ottaviani has some tips.
As chief data officer at Code for Africa (CfA), Ottaviani oversees a 10-person team on data projects across Africa like Gender Gap, an interactive database and calculator which helps users visualize the gender pay gap in countries across Africa, and InfoNile, Africa’s first geojournalism open data project that uncovers water security issues in the Nile Basin.
With the support of the Dow Jones Foundation, Ottaviani recently gave a webinar on leading cross-border data journalism teams. We spoke with him to build on the concepts he introduced in the webinar.
IJNet: Let’s start with an overview of the collaborative work that you do with Code for Africa, and specifically, what challenges do you encounter when you lead initiatives such as Gender Gap and InfoNile?
Ottaviani: One of the major challenges is the multidisciplinary nature of the work. We are putting together people with different backgrounds, including designers, developers, journalists researchers and project managers who are joining forces for a shared objective. That is a challenge because you have to coordinate a lot of moving parts.
Another challenge is coordinating people who are from different countries, come from different cultures and speak different languages. Luckily, we have tools that help us coordinate all the work.
Given these challenges, what tips would you give?
I want to highlight that assigning a project leader is fundamental. That person will be in charge of the coordination of the team members and will have a bird’s-eye view of the entire project. The project leader is not just focusing on a single task, but is overseeing the overall development of the project. If we don't have a project leader, it would be very chaotic scenario with people going in different directions.
In the case of C4A, which is a centralized organization, you can assign a project manager from there. What if you have a bunch of newsrooms coming together and no one is necessarily “in charge?” Is it still beneficial to assign a leader?
Yes. It depends on the size of the project and the team, but in general, every newsroom should appoint one person that will be in charge of the inter-newsroom communication. You can view this person as an ambassador. Then it depends how the project has been designed, but if one of the newsrooms is the lead grantee for the project, that leader would be the overall leader — leader of the leaders. These people are very well organized. They know how to divide and distribute work, how to deal with people and different personalities and are very diplomatic. It is also useful if these leaders have institutional relationships with other partners or know who can facilitate the conversation between players.
Sometimes people run into a challenge when they are working out of newsrooms that are all on equal footing and they don't want to assign a leader. You make a good case for why that’s important.
I have tried it other ways. I took part in projects without clear leadership, and there was a problem in terms of production and deadlines. It was very hard to work efficiently without a real manager in place.
Let’s talk about communication. What methods have you found that have worked to communicate with the team?
Let’s start with the assumption that our team not sitting together in the same room. In that case, we use Slack, or any other tool for communication, and we agree on a set time during the day for a “standup session,” at which time every team member will drop a list of bullet points telling the others what they are planning to do, what they have done the day before and what they consider a “blocker” — something they need to solve before they can move forward.
For example, let’s say I am a designer and I am building the project’s website. That designer would drop a lists of bullet points saying, “Yesterday I designed the logo, today I am planning to work on other design assets, but I need these inputs from the editorial team.” That is a blocker, and the standup session can resolve these kind situations in a quick way without wasting time on endless calls.
You can also have video calls to air any thoughts people have in mind or to discuss strategy. We usually do that on a weekly basis, but it can also be done on a monthly or bimonthly basis.
Another type of communication device is what I call “retrospective analysis.” Let’s say we launch our human trafficking investigation and our website as a team. After we launch it, we are going to convene together and discuss including what went well, what didn't go well and what can be improved in the future. It is a critical review of the project and can only be done after the launch. The team should be constructive — flagging problems and also brainstorming solutions — so the next project won’t have the same kind of problems.
If you have a team of people who likely don’t know each other or haven’t worked together in the past, how do you encourage relationship building?
I think having media calls can be very helpful to bond and I also think teams should try to convene together physically once or twice a year. You can organize a retreat or meet at a conference, but some face-to-face time is always helpful to bond. There are other tricks to let people have fun together [even when] they are not in the same room. You can engage in a music channel on Slack where people drop their playlist or songs. Another one can be a film channel where people post links to Netflix series, films, movies and documentaries. A water cooler channel is my favorite, which is where people can talk about anything as if they were in front of a water cooler [in the office].