Lessons Learnt: Remote Working with Partners Across the Continent
Anele Ngcoya
April 1, 2022
The Africa Data Hub seeks to support and promote quality data-driven journalism and in turn, facilitate evidence-based decision-making about the pandemic across the continent. It is a project that has funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ADH has been running for over a year, with Open Cities Lab (OCL) as a custodian of the project (See the first year in review here). While we had worked with some partners before, we had no previous relationships with others. What lessons have we learnt from ADH about working remotely and building relationships?

5 organisations spread across 5 African cities

The Africa Data Hub (ADH) project team consists of Open Cities Lab (OCL) based in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, who are leading the project in cooperation with four other key organisations: the civic tech organisation OpenUp in Cape Town, the data visualisation company Odipo Dev in Nairobi, the data visualisation company Orodata in Nigeria, and the South African data journalists’ group Media Hack Collective in Johannesburg. Media Monitoring Africa is the fifth partner also in Johannesburg.

A hub and spoke partnership model

There is immense value in partnering with diverse organisations across the continent. We are able to share and borrow all the resource required to model, scale, and efficiently and promptly implement the use of ADH across the continent. The resources, connections, skills; the collective experiences of our partners don’t only enable implementation but also enable scalability and greater impact of ADH. The hub and spoke model for this partnership ensures that at the centre, there is an organisation (OCL) responsible for coordinating all the moving parts. The centre is by no means the driver, but is responsible for holding together the vision and core objectives of the partnership so that partners can push boundaries, explore different opportunities and develop niche services and products.

Challenges of working with remote teams

For the ADH hub-and-spoke model to be a success, ADH partners need to feel empowered to take ownership of processes, outputs, and communication; this can be challenging in a remote working environment. One of the challenges of working with a diverse and remote group of partners is maintaining a collaborative environment as opposed to a contractual-service relationship. We want partners to have a say, feel empowered to agree, disagree, cocreate solutions, innovate and iterate. We don’t want partners to tick boxes and follow orders.. Our experience is that a collaborative environment comes hand-in-hand with having a champion or lead contact in our partner organisations. We are intentional about finding and recognising ADH “champion(s)” in partner organisations as a means of enabling collaboration and encouraging product ownership.

One of the processes we have adopted to encourage collaboration and product ownership is sharing important milestones and discoveries with partners early on and inviting their input even if the idea is not fully fleshed out yet. Our current model of communication with partners involves shorter time-frames of research and exploratory work and inviting partners to review and contribute before we go down the rabbit hole of development. Our media partners are best placed to give our team insights about the needs of data journalists in Africa. Sharing our exploratory research with partners helps focus ADH outputs that have real value to end users: African journalists. Sharing milestones and discoveries this way reduces working-time between ideation and output too. Why do we communicate this way?

In the spirit of inclusiveness and the intention to co-create the Africa Data Hub with all partners, we set about communicating via Slack channels, Trello cards, and occasionally email too. Every two weeks, we had sprint planning meetings online with 40 plus people, many of who silently observed the meetings. We questioned how valuable these meetings were and have tried to reduce the obligation on all team members to attend these meetings.

Needless to say, we are still working on finding the happy balance between regular and valuable communication. We have shifted from the two-week communication cycle with all our partners and their teams — which is time consuming, to sparse and decision based communication with partners — which leaves partners feeling left out. The current communication strategy with partners involves ADH Engagement Lead communicating with lead members of partner organisations on a fortnightly basis. This is working for some partners which do not need detailed insights into all the internal functionings and activities at ADH.

What we learnt through challenges:

What has ADH and OCL learnt about remote partnerships in the past year?

  • Developing processes and communication remotely takes time:

Operating in the remote context has its benefits and drawbacks. One of the major drawbacks while working with remote teams is that the opportunities to meet in person and use in-person interaction to build trust have been limited. The formality that can come with an online working environment limits spontaneous conversations and connections; this translates to a longer relationship building period.

  • Building relationships and trust takes time:

Building relationships, trust, understanding and developing processes and a communication culture/system takes time, it also takes time to build trust with the broader community in which our partners work. While there are questionnaires and surveys ADH shares with its partners, relationships and trust are not built by nor on questionnaires. From a project leadership perspective a bit more emphasis can be placed on how much time and resources it takes to build working-relationships and trust; especially in the remote working environment.

  • Diversity as a strength:

Our ADH partners are similar because of the value they add to the project, however, they are all different and individual. ADH partners have different value systems, cultures, expectations, contexts, and they interact with ADH in different ways with varying degrees of involvement. This has necessitated a shift from a uniform view of ADH media partners, it also entails interacting with our partner organisations as individuals and not a cluster that is presumed to have the same characteristics. This allows ADH to draw from the differences of partners and to optimise outputs and relationships. Figuring out the differences between partners is essential in consistent communication and ensuring that we serve the needs of our end users — data journalists.

ADH has many moving parts that all work together to support and promote quality data-driven journalism and in turn, facilitate evidence-based decision-making about the pandemic across the continent. Getting to a place where we can say we are doing this successfully and efficiently is a journey that takes time and resources, but it is also a necessary journey in which we’re learning about each other.

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