“Stronger Together": Creating a plan for collaboration

"In an increasingly complex social, political and economic environment, and in times of lurking crises, from Covid-19 to the climate emergency, we need to collaborate if we are to investigate such complex phenomena. However, depending on how you go about it, being part of a collaborative investigation can be one of the most rewarding or one of the most stressful projects you participate in (or, most likely, both things at the same time)." (Jose Miguel Calatayud)

This article provides a snapshot from Jose Miguel Calatayud's talk: "'Stronger Together’ or ‘Hell Is Other People’? - How to plan and launch collaborative investigations" at the Investigation is Collaboration conference organised by Exposing the Invisible Project on 2-6 August 2021.

By Di Luong

In May 2021, a team of over 25 investigative and data journalists and visualisation experts from 16 European countries launched Cities for Rent: Investigating Corporate Landlords Across Europe, a collaborative effort looking at the critical housing issues affecting many European cities where people can no longer find affordable and decent places to live. This cross-border investigation found that since the 2007/2008 financial crisis international investment funds and housing corporations have been buying homes across European cities, driving the purchase as well as the rental prices sky high. In addition to making housing inaccessible to many of the these cities inhabitants, stories have emerged of abusive practices by ‘corporate landlords’, the companies that buy and rent out housing for profit. 

The Cities for Rent team, coordinated by the international non-profit Arena for Journalism in Europe worked for over seven months to collect, analyse and visualise data to address several crucial questions: Where is all that money coming from? Who are the companies and investors buying so much housing across Europe? How does this phenomenon affect people’s lives and homes in European cities?

Snapshot from video trailer of The Cities for Rent project. Source: Arena for Journalism in Europe YouTube page

We all know that such a collaboration across border and skills (remember it took a team of over 25 people in 16 countries) does not happen by itself and is by no means an easy enterprise. It requires communication, time, skills, money, access to data, collaboration, and most important of all - coordination, and someone to do it. This is where freelance journalist Jose Miguel Calatayud*’s work, experience and resilience was key. As the co-initiator and coordinator of the The Cities for Rent team and project (and of many other collaborative projects before that), Jose shares the essential considerations to keep in mind when managing a collaborative investigation at any scale:

  1. Maintain and coordinate a realistic workload
  2. Clearly define goals and expectations 
  3. Facilitate communication and promote transparency between all partners
  4. Plan, plan, plan

1. Maintain and coordinate a realistic workload

Collaboration is an opportunity to bring together a diverse team, and it can increase the richness and impact of what is published. Make an honest assessment of your or organization’s capacity and resources like time, expertise, and funding.

What type of collaboration is the best fit or aligns with your goals? It could be as simple as sharing contacts, amplifying each other’s work, exchanging skills and expertise. For example a potential collaborator may speak a language you do not speak.

2. Clearly define goals and expectations

Collaborators should have a shared vision. One tip to make sure everyone is on the same page is to share the group’s mission with the public. Collaborations often occur when individuals are seeking each other’s experiences. Expertise is helpful, but trust is just as important.

One question to consider when defining expectations and goals is who does what. Also consider how the team makes decisions: should it be a quorum, majority vote, or another avenue to obtain consensus? A memorandum of understanding (MOU) could potentially ensure accountability. 

Here is a checklist of potential tasks to delegate:

  • Securing external funding or support is needed
  • Managing the data
  • Documenting the project
  • Promoting outcomes of the investigation
  • ‘Post-mortem’ analysis (lessons learned after the investigation wraps up)

3. Facilitate communication and promote transparency between all partners

Journalists and others who investigate use phrasing and jargon or “technical language” that are different than what developers, activists or policy experts would use. Collaborators need to make an extra effort with individuals across different sectors or from other professional backgrounds. We may say the same thing, but do we mean the same thing?

Differences are not barriers. A mutual understanding of these divides will help you build bridges early in your collaborative efforts. Here is an example checklist:

  • Different visions - are we informing the public or changing the world?
  • Different pace of work - can we agree on the calendar? What is the timeline of the project? For example, the process for publishing in a newspaper or online media is often much shorter than for an academic journal.
  • Different publication standards - can we publish each other’s work? For example, a piece may be considered by some publications to be an op-ed when the author considers it to be non-fiction.
  • Different norms and standards - what constitutes independent research? What does transparent reporting mean? How do you evaluate you have enough evidence to publish?

4. Plan, plan, plan

Jose’s mantra is: plan, plan, plan. Plan for expected and unexpected activities and budgets, plan for the worse, plan to get stressed, plan for failure and success, plan to care for your and your team’s well-being. And plan all these together with your team and all throughout the project. Planning should never stop .

*Jose Miguel Calatayud is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, currently focusing on collaborative investigative journalism in Europe, and most recently he coordinated the Cities for Rent investigation. Jose also works with Arena for Journalism in Europe, a non-profit foundation that promotes cross-border collaborative journalism and where he lead the Housing Project, and has collaborated with Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible project on training emerging investigators and developing resources for collaborative investigations. Jose also contributes to AlgorithmWatch and Eticas Foundation about algorithmic accountability reporting. More info at https://josemcalatayud.net/in-english.

This article is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This text reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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