Image credit: Caley Dewhurt/ODI

Case study: The ODI Writers’ Fund for Black History Month 2020

Thu Jan 14, 2021
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In September and October 2020, the Open Data Institute (ODI) ran the ODI Writers’ Fund for Black History Month 2020

In September and October 2020, the Open Data Institute (ODI) ran the ODI Writers’ Fund for Black History Month 2020.

Summary of the project

This was a fund to be awarded to black writers to tell a story about, or using, data, which would then be published on our site during Black History Month. The fund went to three winners: Eleanor Shearer, who wrote an in-depth article about the complicated relationship between data and race; Anne L. Washington, who wrote a poem that explored who or what might be missing in data about people’s lives; and Danni Youziel, who wrote an afro-futurist short story about the future of facial recognition.

Why a writers’ fund?

The fundamental idea behind the ODI Writers’ fund was commemorating Black History Month in a way that was both meaningful and beneficial to black communities. The aim was to give space to and amplify the voices of black people in the data space – to get the black perspective heard, both at the ODI and in the space it occupies.

In doing this, we hoped the initiative would open the ODI up to the black experience – our networks are largely white, and yet we know that black people are working in and contributing to the data field. This initiative was an opportunity to engage with black people in the data space, and hear their voices and perspectives. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to diversity and inclusion, to show that we wanted to take real action based on that commitment, and to learn and grow from the exercise.

These driving factors behind the ODI Writers’ Fund are central to our ongoing strategy. One of the key ODI values is being ‘expert’, but we can’t be expert if our perspective is limited. As laid out in our vision, we want a world where data works for everyone. Sharing and amplifying black people’s perspectives on data – and learning from voices external to our own organisation – is important in working towards this vision.

ODI Writers’ Fund for Black History Month 2020 at a glance

Project overview

While we explored what to do to commemorate Black History Month 2020 internally, discussion turned to what we could and should be doing externally. The ODI’s vision is centred on a world where data works for everyone; we wanted to ensure we reflect and act upon that.

Originally, the idea was to publish a blog post marking the month. However, this felt limiting – instead of sharing one internal voice, we wanted to learn about external perspectives. This developed into the idea of a writers’ fund – granting a number of external black writers a £500 fee (as decided upon by consulting londonfreelance.org’s digital media fee guide, which suggested a fee of £400 per 1,000 words including intense research) to research and write a story about or using data. The idea was to create the conditions and space for black people to share their perspectives, and to embrace the wealth of talent, wisdom and creativity that is out there.

We published a world-wide open call in September for black writers of any nationality to submit proposals for a piece. The focus of the open call was on proposals, rather than asking for completed stories or writing extracts – we did not want to ask applicants to do unpaid work in advance, and also wanted to be accessible to new writers.

There was a focus on outreach via a Twitter campaign to reach people both within and outside of our network. We wanted to reach writers from a range of black cultures and heritages, and directly engaged literary communities in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as diaspora communities in the UK and North America. We contacted a range of networks directly on Twitter (which we found through ODI team member recommendations and our own searches), and encouraged our community to share. Examples of the networks we got in touch with can be found in this Twitter thread.

It was important to the ODI that the proposals were given the right level of consideration, so we enlisted an expert, majority-black judging panel. The panel had a balance of genders and representation of both Caribbean and African heritages:

In total, the open call resulted in 27 proposals, including a number of international submissions. From this, an internal, majority-black team created a shortlist of 8 proposals for the judges to consider. The criteria for judgement was based around clear and good use of data; creativity; reflection of black experience or areas of importance to black communities; passion for the content subject; the writer’s ability to stretch our thinking – whether that was in the style or the content; and ensuring variety within the selected proposals.

The intention was to choose two winners. However, the quality of proposals was so high that the judges ended up choosing three, all with unique takes on the brief: 

Once the winners were selected, members of the ODI’s production team held a meeting with each of the writers to discuss their ideas, give some feedback based on the judges’ deliberations, and discuss how the ODI could support the creation of the piece. The writers then had two weeks to deliver the content, after which the pieces went through a feedback process and were published on the site alongside a landing page.

After publishing, we focused on publicising the final pieces – this was our first time running the initiative, and so building reach was important. Much like with the open call, we shared the published pieces in The Week in Data (opened by 3,300 subscribers), in a dedicated email (opened by 3,155 subscribers), and in a series of Tweets which received over 29.6k impressions.

We also wanted to support the applicants who weren’t successful for this year’s fund. Everyone who applied for the fund was offered free tickets to our flagship event, the ODI Summit, where we hoped they could continue their research into this field, network and build relationships, and be inspired by speakers like Dr Safiya Noble, who authored the bestseller ‘Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism’.

It’s important to note that we don’t want the ODI Writers’ Fund to be a one-off, token gesture. The intention is for it to be a sustainable venture that remains a meaningful way to work towards our vision of a world where data works for everyone; and to continue supporting and developing the relationships we have built through the process. There are plans to continue the fund, and to use the initiative to support and platform additional marginalised groups. However, it’s undecided how the ODI will do this going forward in a way that is most beneficial for the communities it affects.

Reach and impact

In the 2 months following the publishing of the pieces, they received a total of over 2.5k page views.

We gave the ODI Writers’ Fund for Black History Month 2020 a big push on social media at both the open call and publishing stage. The campaign seemed to resonate well with our audience: the Tweets – which included publicising open call, announcing the winners, and sharing the final pieces – gained over 106k impressions and over 1.6k engagements in total. The pieces were also praised and shared across the platform:

Not only were the pieces shared on social media, but also through various newsletters and reading lists.

The Writers’ Fund initiative also gained recognition at the ODI Summit, which had over 1,000 virtual attendees. A short film about the pieces was shown; Eleanor Shearer spoke at a roundtable session about the benefits and pitfalls of data collection – something she discussed in her own piece; Anne Washington’s poem was mentioned by Dr Safiya Noble during her keynote; and all three writers attended a private Q&A session with Dr Noble.

Beyond its reach, the Writers’ Fund has also had an impact on the writers themselves. For example, one of the writers commented that the initiative allowed them the time and resources to explore a topic they’d been interested in for a while. It was also noted that the initiative and subsequent promotion enabled the writers to build their networks, advance their understanding of the topics, and reach new audiences they might not have otherwise reached. One of the writers also noted that this experience showed them that there’s an appetite for creative works about data and its use; and another commented that this experience was their first bit of paid writing, so being able to officially label themselves a professional writer was an impactful experience for them.

What was challenging?

Firstly, the condensed timeline meant opportunities were missed. The initiative had a tight schedule – the finalised idea of the Writers’ Fund was only decided at relatively short notice, and it came with a hard deadline of uploading the pieces during Black History Month. Because of this, the open call was only open for a week, which was limiting – with a longer open call, we could have built stronger relationships with networks, widened our reach, and given more writers the time to develop their ideas. The short timeline – along with a slight underestimation of how long parts of the feedback process would take – also meant the pieces were only published at the very end of Black History Month (going live on 27 October). With more time, we could have published the pieces earlier, allowing for wider dissemination throughout Black History Month.

It was challenging to define a level of ODI feedback that was appropriate. The ODI wanted to support the writers throughout the process. We offered feedback on the original proposals from experts in the data field and those with editorial expertise, and put the submitted pieces through the same feedback process as internally-written content. However, it was very important to the ODI that the pieces remained as the writers had intended, and in their own voices. Finding the correct line between offering an adequate level of support while also ensuring that we weren’t removing the writer’s ownership of the piece was a challenging but important endeavour.

It’s also worth noting that we did not require any previous examples of writing at the submission stage, as a way to encourage new writers to take part. This meant there was more uncertainty about the applicants’ ability to deliver their proposed pieces. While this was not the case with this year’s winners, we ran the risk of selecting participants who are less confident in their technical writing skills, where the line between support and ownership may become even more difficult to define.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, it’s an ongoing challenge for us to ensure that this is a sustainable effort, rather than a one-off, token gesture, and our approach to this is still evolving. From the experience of running this initiative for Black History Month, we recognise that it’s a model that works well to amplify and engage people in marginalised communities. However, there are still questions about how best to implement this again going forward.

For example, there are discussions about whether we should continue to use specific cultural milestones (like Black History Month or Pride Month) to run writers’ funds for specific groups, or whether it would be better to instead run more generalised writers’ funds throughout the year – after all, these discussions shouldn’t be contained to singular months in the calendar. And, in the next iterations of the Writers’ Fund, should we require pieces to centre around issues pertaining to that community; or does that approach pigeonhole writers, and instead it should be enough for the writer to simply be a part of that community.

What went well?

Firstly, a real benefit of the ODI Writers’ Fund was the positive impact it had on the writers. As noted, the writers have fed back that the initiative presented a number of benefits for them, from creating new connections and reaching new audiences, to allowing them to develop and explore areas of interest. This is incredibly important to us, and something that was crucial to the programme since its inception – we didn’t want it to be a one-way relationship that only resulted in us publishing new content.

Next, the published pieces are insightful, important, and have impacted the ODI’s own practice. One of the key criteria for judging the pieces was the ability to stretch our thinking, and the winners’ works have done just that. For example, Eleanor Shearer’s essay on data collection and race has been cited in our own internal conversations about collecting data to monitor the diversity of our event participants; and was quoted in the ODI’s response to the National Data Strategy consultation. This outcome is incredibly important to us – our vision centres on a world where data works for everyone, and so when forming the idea of the Writers’ Fund, it was important that it wasn’t just an outward-facing endeavour, but rather something that we would also learn from.

We’ve also learned more about the level of talent and creativity that is out there. Aside from our art programme, Data as Culture, our normal approach to content creation can be quite insular. However, by trusting in the wealth of creativity that can be found in the wider community outside of the ODI, we have been able to publish quality pieces of content that stand out in our catalogue. The pieces employed styles the ODI doesn’t normally use (like poetry and fiction), and covered topics that we haven’t previously written about.

Not only have the pieces impacted us at the ODI, but they also resonated with our audience. The project performed incredibly well on social media, garnering a lot of interest both within and outside of our established network. For example, the Twitter campaign saw over 106k impressions and over 1.6k engagements, and the pieces were quoted and shared by our audience. The open call played some part in extending the reach of the campaign, as it presented an opportunity that was open to a large group of people and was therefore shared widely. But beyond just building reach, the open call and published pieces also allowed us to build and strengthen relationships with other networks and individuals not only in the data community, but also with well-established literary networks and those that are focused on furthering diversity and representation.

What have we learned?

  1. Platforming and amplifying voices external to the ODI can increase the visibility of insightful, impactful content. The resulting pieces were of a high standard, garnered an impressive reach, and impacted our own practice for the better.
  2. Creative initiatives can be an effective way of engaging with audiences, and can be a tool for diversity and inclusion intervention. By focusing on the method of storytelling to share perspectives and voices, we have built and strengthened relationships with communities and individuals outside of our existing network, and have opened up our platform to a more diverse community.
  3. Work surrounding diversity and inclusion should be both internal and external. The Writers’ Fund isn’t just an outward-facing production endeavour, but should continue to inform our wider practice.
  4. When running an initiative such as this, longer timelines should be used and processes should be clearly defined ahead of time. This is especially important if publishing content around key external milestones with hard deadlines, like Black History Month.