MediaFutures is a Digital Innovation Hub funded by the European Commission to support startups, artists and collaborative projects between startups and artists with a focus on countering misinformation, disinformation as well as a variety of related challenges in the media sector. With a project duration of three years, MediaFutures is soon coming to an end. Throughout the project we have had a number of interesting experiences that we are now sharing with our interview series on Lessons Learned for experts working on similar projects.

For today’s series on Lessons Learned, we have interviewed Darren Temple, Consultant at the Open Data Institute to give us some insights on the experiences we had with running a support programme that included training, mentoring and advice.

Darren, together with other MediaFutures partners you have worked on shaping a robust training programme for the participants. Which topics of the training programme were considered particularly important for the work of startups and artists?

Darren Temple: As MediaFutures is focused around the central theme of tackling misinformation and disinformation, there firstly had to be training sessions that support this foundation for everyone, regardless of a participant’s discipline. To cater for this, the training programme included core topics that were more conceptual, such as the session on data ethics, as well as topics that were more practical, such as the session on GDPR.

Further to these general requirements, the mixed nature of the programme meant that different disciplines had their own more specific requirements too. For the business side, we provided training on topics such as “Intellectual property rights”, “Category design” and “Sales pipelines for software-as-a-service”. For the creative side, we provided training on topics such as “Data visualisation” and “Collaborating with startups”. The distinction of needs and wants is not always clear-cut between disciplines though, and in many cases the startups and artists benefited from the sessions equally, sometimes from information, and sometimes from ideas and inspiration.

Darren Temple (ODI) and Tara Lee (ODI) announcing the winning teams of the 3rd MediaFutures cohort in Hamburg

How has the training programme changed during the course of the project?

Darren Temple: Thanks to some initial good scoping of needs, many of the core sessions remained the same throughout the programme, and were well received and appreciated by the participants in each cohort. Some trainers have been involved since the very beginning, and tailored their offerings based on feedback and internal assessment. Sometimes this involved removing or adding a session in whole, and at other times this involved minor adjustments to the content or style. With the addition of new trainers later on, we then had more knowledge and skills to draw from, and could offer completely new sessions to the later cohorts. But the central offerings were very consistent.

If there is anything you could change for the future, what would that be?

Darren Temple: Given extra resources, it would be great to have a centralised platform to orchestrate the whole training programme, including delivery and materials. We have managed things with various spreadsheets, documents, calendars, emails, and shared online storage space for files, not to mention a range of video software for delivering the sessions themselves. But there are modern solutions for online education that bring much of this together in one package, providing benefits for both trainers and participants. Such solutions are, however, an additional expense and do have some overhead in terms of training the trainers. But, for an extended programme like MediaFutures, the pros of such solutions would likely outweigh the cons.

What are some of the major learnings for you in shaping the training and support programme?

Darren Temple: The coordination of the training programme involved a number of aspects of project management. First and foremost, it is important to realise that communication is key to success. It was necessary to get a variety of information from both the trainers and the participants, and to give information back to both groups, all at different times and in different ways. Channelling the information to make the right connections was essential to ensure that everything worked out, and the practicalities of doing this provided a useful lesson.

What feedback was received from the participants regarding the training and support provided to them during the MediaFutures programme?

Darren Temple: Regarding content, most participants agreed that most sessions had either partial or entirely new content for them. Importantly, regardless of pre-existing knowledge, a generally higher fraction of participants agreed that sessions improved their understanding. This is a great result and shows the quality of trainers that we were fortunate enough to have involved.

A top recurring theme in the training feedback was interactivity. If a session was more interactive rather than lecture style, with all-group discussions, breakout group sessions, debates, surveys, games and so on, then this was always commented on favourably. If a session was less interactive, then this again was highlighted for want of more involvement. Not only did participants simply find that more interactive sessions were more enjoyable and engaging, but they found them more useful too. If a session is purely lecture style, then it can essentially just be recorded and viewed at any time.

This was one aspect of a broader feedback theme, which was balance. There must be a balance of: duration – not too short and not too long; content – not too broad and not too specific; level – not too basic and not too technical. And all of these facets of training, plus more besides, are of course perceived differently by different participants. A session may be great for one participant but may not be particularly special for another. Creating such resources and experiences is no easy task though, and I think that the participants could appreciate the work that went into the programme overall.

Would you propose certain policy recommendations in order to provide higher quality, updated and inclusive training at EU and national level?

Darren Temple: I think this involves two main aspects – knowledge/skills and tools/resources. There must be the right level of insight for the needs of a training programme overall, which comes down to the knowledge and skills of a central organiser or organising committee, and which may or may not be the trainers themselves but which should at least be informed by the trainers. Policy should reflect the organisational needs as well as the needs of the information to be delivered, essentially. Regarding tools and resources, policy should aim to go beyond individual training programmes and consider the generic needs that can be packaged and used to jump-start new efforts, ensuring efficiency and saving time and effort for all involved.

Did you face unexpected challenges during the project implementation, and if yes, how were these challenges overcome?

Darren Temple: The training programme was delivered almost exclusively online, which was necessary due to trainers and participants being physically spread across the world most of the time. On a couple of occasions we experienced some difficulty with participant access to training sessions just as they were getting started. This typically happened if a training team was using an unfamiliar delivery platform with specific access needs, for example. Despite being as prepared as possible, such issues can still happen, and different participants can have different experiences due to the quirks of their individual setups. These challenges were addressed by having support always being available as each session was starting, to monitor for emergency messages from participants that were having difficulties. Learnings were rapidly made and fed back to trainers to ensure that such issues were less likely for their future sessions.

Would you like to share lessons learned and recommendations for other related projects / data accelerators in general or media accelerators in particular?

Darren Temple: Firstly, I would advise other groups undertaking similar projects to ensure that as much relevant information is gathered as early as possible from all groups. Trainers need to be confident that things are being well looked after, and strong early organisation ensures that this is apparent and that everyone is on the same page regarding needs and expectations. Participants need to be confident that they are being given the right information at the right time, without being overwhelmed. This means that communication needs to be clear and frequent, but not so frequent that no particular message stands out. A balance must be sought with all aspects, which is an ongoing challenge, and it must be accepted that everything will need to be flexible and adaptable.

Darren Temple is a consultant at the Open Data Institute, working with clients to facilitate their data goals. With a background in physics research and startup experience as a Python programmer, he also contributes to the scientific and technical direction of the ODI, and has particular interests in energy and the environment. Darren has a degree in physics from the University of Sheffield, and a PhD in plasma physics for nuclear fusion from Imperial College London.

The MediaFutures Lessons Learned interview series was coordinated by the team Leibniz University of Hannover, L3S Research Center, with support from DEN Institute.