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 startup and artist projects 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 now are sharing with our interview series on Lessons Learned for experts working on similar projects.

For today’s series on Lessons Learned, we have interviewed Igor Idareta, European R&D Project Consultant at Zabala Innovation as well as Tara Lee, Senior Consultant at the Open Data Institute to give us some insights on the experiences we made running Open Calls, finding and evaluating suitable startup and artist teams as well as the role of diversity and inclusion in projects like MediaFutures.

Igor, I would like to start with you. Can you give us some insights on the Open Calls of MediaFutures. How did it go and did MediaFutures achieve what was planned?

Igor Idareta: MediaFutures’ main objective has been to support the development of projects within the European media sector to fight against misinformation and disinformation. The main technical background of the projects was the innovative use of data and the implementation of algorithms, and the actors involved have been as varied as startups, SMEs and artists.

Therefore, the first step was to be able to reach the most creative stakeholders in Europe, motivate them to propose an initiative and to select the most promising and impactful ones. We organised that exercise around three consecutive Open Calls implemented during the three years of project duration. Since our target groups were so diverse, the project was organised as well in three different tracks on each Open Call, depending on the type of actors involved. The first track was called Startups for Citizens (SfC) and it was aimed at experiments performed by startups or SMEs, individually or in cooperation. The second track was named Artists for Media (AfM) and was focused on artists, either as individuals, in groups or as artistic companies. Finally, the most challenging track was known as Startup meets Artist (SmA) and it was looking for collaborative projects between an entrepreneurial partner (startup or SME) and an artistic player (individual or collective).

To reach these target audiences we have implemented dedicated communication campaigns promoting the Open Calls. Under the lead of the MediaFutures partner DEN Institute and in collaboration with all consortium partners, various networks in relation to the call topics were identified and contacted. These communication activities included, apart from sending out emails to personal contacts, webinars and matchmaking sessions (where artists and startups met to discuss partnerships for a common application), videos, visuals and social media advertising campaigns on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

The project has been quite successful and has achieved its main goals in terms of expressions of interest registered (565), number of complete proposals received (383), number of startups/SMEs (more than 230), numbers of artists (more than 235) and countries coverage (all the EU Member States and 15 more countries worldwide). Through the MediaFutures project, we have witnessed remarkable growth and innovation thanks to these applicants.

In your opinion, what were some of the major differences in MediaFutures compared to similar projects running Open Calls?

Igor Idareta: I would mention up to 3 main differential aspects of MediaFutures. First, the already mentioned SmA track required applicants to submit proposals in collaboration between two worlds that are not used to cooperating: the entrepreneurial sector and the artistic players. This is something quite unique. Second, the involvement of this artistic part has been complemented by a strong orientation to projects that were achieving active citizens engagement. This is far more ambitious for the societal impact than the typical high-tech accelerator programme. And finally third, the MediaFutures programme has reached the artistic sector all around the world collecting proposals for artworks dealing with misinformation and disinformation challenges as a global problem.

Guide us through some of the changes and iterations that were made. What sort of changes occurred, why were those changes made and what did they achieve?

Igor Idareta: The first Open Call opened the doors for applicants to submit their proposals to one of three challenges and choose one of three tracks. After this initial call, it was concluded that several challenges combined with several tracks resulted in confusion. Applicants were not sure which track to choose or what challenge to address. Therefore, the number of challenges was reduced to one single challenge for the second and third Open Calls but maintaining the three tracks (AfM, SfC, SmA). The results showed that this was the correct decision. The single challenge approach set a more focused scope and the projects were much more aligned with the general aim of MediaFutures, while keeping a similar level of applicants.

As a further novelty, in the last call we decided to change our application platform to provide a single entry door for all applications regardless of the track they were selecting. The switch allowed us to improve the user experience, scoring 4,6 out of 5 stars. Furthermore, it was possible to gather all applications from all tracks with one single form in one place: the MediaFutures website. On the other hand, switching away from the original platform did need some time for the persons involved to adapt and learn the ropes. In the end, the whole new process achieved 50% less problems/complaints with last minute applications and 13% higher eligibility rate, implementing several mechanisms to reduce human error to a minimum.

Last but not least, since the second Open Call, the applicants were asked to indicate their gender and ethnicity in the application form. We did this in order to enhance diversity and inclusion in our project. In order to do so, we needed to know how diverse our applicants were with quantitative data. It allowed us to reinforce our processes of the Open Call design, communication and implementation to minimise the barriers to entry of underrepresented groups (by gender and/or ethnicity).

Tara, please give us some insights on why diversity and inclusion is such an important topic for projects like MediaFutures?

Tara Lee: MediaFutures offered three tracks to apply to, which meant we had a range of startups, SMEs and artists applying with project solutions that varied in their levels of technicality, creativity and business opportunities.

We know from funding research that there are additional barriers to entry for startup and arts funding for female and non-binary applicants, people of colour, and people from lower socio-economic countries. We also know from sociological research that we all have inherent bias, and tend to favour things that are more familiar to our own life experiences.

However it has also been repeatedly demonstrated that more diverse thinking within groups leads to greater and more successful innovations. We therefore considered how we could play our part as a consortium in reducing those barriers to entry.

How did we attract more diverse applicants? 

Tara Lee: We incorporated and emphasised diversity and inclusion in our assessment criteria to ensure both the applicants and evaluators considered the impact the projects would have on diverse audiences. We sought out more external evaluators with different life experiences to those we had within the consortium, and created a fund to pay them for their time and expertise. We had three different evaluators score each application to create a balanced assessment. We sought out new audiences for the Open Calls who we might not have otherwise reached. Finally we asked applicants to provide us with demographic information in their applications so that we could see if different demographic profiles fared better or worse throughout our application process.

What are some of the major learnings for you in managing Open Calls?

Igor Idareta: I would like to highlight the following main learnings of the whole process. The feedback that we have provided to applicants since the first Open Call was so meaningful that we witnessed how several applicants who reapplied in succeeding Open Calls, achieved a much higher quality in their proposals when reapplying for the second and last Open Call. Some teams that were not retained in the earlier calls significantly improved their concepts and approaches and were finally funded in the last chance.

Another important aspect was the creation of an active community and ecosystem from the first calls. Having an active and diverse communication policy and intense activity in the social networks has proved to be successful and provide high competition in the calls, even during challenging times. The final Open Call was open during the summer period and we did not experience any significant decline, neither in the number of proposals nor in their quality.

Finally, I would say that another key of the success was to design and implement a robust data strategy regarding the proposals and the applicants. It allowed us to extract valuable insights from every single iteration in the process and finally enhanced our acceleration program to generate some meaningful impacts.

Tara Lee: All aspects of the application and evaluation process need to be made as clear as possible. Working on these Open Calls for an extended period, some aspects will seem obvious to you but not to others, and ambiguity creates delays and missed opportunities. For example, when you ask for feedback from evaluators, be very clear on the length and type of feedback you require.

When running international Open Calls, think about how the messaging will play to different cultures and not just to your own, otherwise you may alienate some audiences, who feel your call isn’t for them, based on how something has been phrased.

Would you propose certain policy recommendations in order to further increase inclusivity in Open Calls and enable greater access to funding for entrepreneurs and artists at EU and national level?

Tara Lee: Think about where your Open Calls are publicised and how they are worded. You won’t get many diverse applications if you always target the same audiences. Consider what demographic information you collect from applicants. You don’t know if you have, or are inadvertently creating barriers to entry if you don’t track any of that data. However, you also need to be very clear with your messaging in the data collection process as to why you are collecting it, and only make the minimum amount of data collection mandatory, as some candidates may feel sensitive around providing certain information.

You will also need to be clear as to who will have access to this data and what will be done with it. Finally, ensure that your phrasing of questions when collecting demographic data does not include ‘other’ as an umbrella term or category. For example, you may wish to provide a longer list of options, or give candidates the option to specify in their own words e.g. ‘Female, male, prefer to specify’. Do not default to the first options being ‘male’, ‘white’, ‘heterosexual’ etc.

Igor Idareta: I fully support Tara’s proposals. Our partners in charge of dissemination activities did an enormous amount of work defining a clear strategy that was aimed at nodes and multipliers of underrepresented groups, so we were fully sure that our message was received by all the relevant stakeholders, independently of their traditional access barriers.

After that, the Open Calls were designed to simplify as much as possible the access to these groups, minimising red tape and providing a smooth and simple application route. This design was reinforced by providing active support to applicants in several ways, facilitating access to frequent questions, providing application samples, holding specific webinars about call details and processes, generating video materials for support, and managing a one-to-one helpdesk for every single applicant.

Finally, we also implemented quite a relevant indication for the evaluators of the proposals. Apart from the formal evaluation of the proposals according to the evaluation criteria, we also asked them to make a final exercise on each proposal, which we called “Polish vs Promise”. The idea was to detect some ideas with great potential that maybe were not submitted with the finest quality but could reach a meaningful impact by being supported by our acceleration programme. This aspect was specially discussed on every jury panel in the selection of the awarded proposals.

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

Tara Lee: Both the global pandemic and invasion of Ukraine created unexpected challenges during the project implementation. As an international consortium we were already well placed to manage work remotely, but this did create limitations on the face to face interactions we could have with the participants. It did however mean we could broaden the geographical reach for artistic candidates beyond Europe. The invasion of Ukraine meant we had to place immediate restrictions and additional checks on new projects if the participants resided in Russia, and made it more challenging for applicants residing in Ukraine who had to manage far greater disruptions to their work and lives, which we did our best to support. But it also highlighted some of the existing and new dangers around disinformation and misinformation in the projects designed, and made some of these hyper relevant.

Igor Idareta: Apart from those ones indicated by Tara, there were not any special unforeseen challenges apart from the typical adjustments on the Open Calls practical calendar to ensure the collection of the maximum number of high quality proposals. We were already considering all the rest of the challenges typical of these large cooperation projects and we only had to activate the contingency mechanisms foreseen in the consortium. At the end, this allowed us to fine-tune our processes in the consecutive Open Calls.

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

Igor Idareta: Think of your overall objective in specific terms. What do you expect to achieve, both at the end of the project and also 3-5 years later. Afterwards, continue identifying clearly your target groups and your messages and means to them. Collect formal and informal feedback from your applicants and never stop improving your processes. One final fact: never underestimate the applicants’ capability to submit applications at the last minute. Independently of our efforts, over 80% of applications were received in the last 36 hours of each Open Call. Work hard and be confident on your programme!

Tara Lee: Be as clear and detailed in your communication as possible. Consider diverse perspectives, and how you can make your projects / accelerators more accessible to all audiences, as this will only increase your chances of having successful and innovative solutions.

Igor Idareta

Igor Idareta has earned 2 degrees in Industrial Engineering (specialty in Mechanics) and a BEng (Hons) in Design Engineering, from the Public University of Navarra (Spain) and Staffordshire University (UK).  Mr. Idareta has worked for about 20 years as consultant of Innovation Management specialising in funding R&D and Innovation projects under Programmes such as V, VI and VII RTD Framework Programme (DG RTD – DG GROW – DG CONNECT), CIP-EcoInnovation (DG GROW), LIFE Programme (DG ENV – DG CLIMA), Intelligent Energy for Europe Programme (DG MOVE) and Interreg III Programme (DG REGIO). He is specialised in technology transfer and commercialisation of R&D results in the framework of EU funded programmes, as well as industrial sustainability programmes related to all the areas relevant for the European Green Deal (Climate, Energy, Transport, Circular Economy, Zero pollution). Inside ZABALA he leads the consultants team in charge of energy, mobility, industry and environment related European sub programmes.

Igor Idareta

Tara Lee is a Senior Consultant at the ODI, leading projects in a variety of sectors including health and physical activity, education, water, energy, net zero, and arts, culture and heritage. She joined the ODI in 2018 to lead the engagement team for OpenActive, a Sport England-funded initiative to help more people become physically active through open data. She has since led projects with Insight, Hydro Quebec, MediaFutures, Metropolitan Police, Microsoft, OFWAT, UKRI, and United Utilities. Her work includes running data innovation challenges, stewarding community engagement, and creating open data strategies and policies. Prior to joining the ODI, Tara was a senior consultant at Upshot, a project management, monitoring and evaluation system. While there she consulted with and supported over 100 community organisations from across the UK. Tara holds a BSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), with a focus on gender in society.

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