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The Genesis of The School of Data Fellowship

- July 20, 2017 in Fellowship

In 2013, data literacy was, and in many ways remains, a nascent field. Unsurprisingly, finding reliable trainers to carry out School of Data missions around the world was a struggle. We started our Fellowship programme, as a way to address the lack of data literacy trainers throughout the world. Even in 2013, it was clear that while short term data trainings were effective at raising awareness of potential uses of data for storying telling and advocacy, more long term interventions were required to actually build data skills in civil society and the media. We designed the School of Data Fellowship to address these two primary challenges that we had identified and were regularly confronting during the course of our work:

  1. there is a severe shortage of data trainers able to work with local communities and adapt training to local needs and/or languages.
  2. organisations and individuals need to engage with data over a long period of time for data activities to become embedded within their work.

Building the foundations

Our Fellowships are nine-month placements with School of Data for existing data-literacy practitioners. We identify high potential individuals with topical expertise and help them mature as data literacy leaders by working alongside School of Data and our global network. At the start of the Fellowship, we create an individualised programme with each Fellow, designed to equip them with the skills they need to more effectively further data literacy in their community. This programme is built around the core competencies required for furthering data literacy: community building; content creation; and knowledge transfer (see Data Literacy Activity Matrix) for more details on these competencies).

From the outset, we were successful at recruiting high-potential individuals to participate in the programme and throughout the years the applicant pool has only grown. We have worked with the Fellows to adapt and translate materials, develop original learning content and provide training to local civil society. Each year, we make tweaks in the programme to reflect learnings both from where we are achieving our goals as well as where we have fallen short.

An evolving process

Over the years, we have fine-tuned the goals of the programme to reflect what we have found the Fellowship programme to be most effective at achieving as well as what is needed to advance data literacy. These goals are as follows:

  1. identify, train and support individuals who have the potential to become data leaders and sources of expertise in their country and/region;

  2. kickstart, or strengthen, data literacy communities in the countries where current and former Fellows are active

Prior to 2016, we had not clearly articulated that kickstarting data literacy communities was one of the goals of the Fellowship programme but it had become obvious that this was a critical component to the sustainability of our work. Given that data literacy is such a nascent field, it was always important, in each new city/country, for the Fellows to do substantial awareness raising work. The Fellows who were most successful would provide trainings and organise meet-ups not necessarily to build individual skills but to start sensitising local communities to the idea that data is a powerful tool for civil society.

A successful approach

In late 2016, we conducted interviews with two dozen School of Data Fellows to better understand whether we were achieving our goals as a programme. These interviews formed the basis of our first Fellowship Outcomes Mapping. Some of the highlights of these interviews can be found below.

The Fellows:

We found that the Fellowship has been successful in achieving its initial goal, creating a community of qualified local trainers knowledgeable in School of Data methodologies and actively spreading data literacy in their respective countries:

  1. Better Understanding of the Data Needs and Challenges of Civil Society: Over the years, we have recruited a number of developers, data analysts and entrepreneurs, who, prior to the Fellowship, had little understanding of the specific challenges faced by civil society in using data. Through working with local NGOs, governments and newsrooms, these Fellows gained an understanding of how they could use their skills to serve civil society more effectively.

  2. New Methodologies & Approaches for Training: Through the Fellowship programme, Fellows were able to tap into a network of data literacy practitioners and learn from the best about how to build an effective training programme for any audience.

  3. International Visibility & Connections: Finally, through the School of Data programme, Fellows were introduced to an international community, increasing both the visibility of their work and providing them with a number of new and exciting opportunities to train and to be recruited for consultancies and jobs. Fellows have gone on to work for large newsrooms, international organisations, development agencies and governments.

The local communities

In addition to supporting Fellows to achieve their own goals and personal development, the Fellowship programme also seeks to strengthen data literacy within local civil society. The potential of the Fellowship to have a meaningful impact on local civil society groups was formally acknowledged in 2016, with the inclusion of a specific programmatic goal relating to community-building. As seen in School of Data’s research on the value of different formats of data literacy activities, the Fellowship format is most successful in achieving outcomes related to awareness-building (understanding of data uses, awareness of data skill gaps, knowledge of the data pipeline) as well as the kickstarting of data-related activities locally.

This awareness raising work is required in every sector. It is not necessarily because there is an emerging data community focused on transparency and accountability in public finance or extractives that the local health or water CSOs will be sold on the idea of integrating more data into their work. To reflect these learnings, in 2016, we started recruiting Fellows with a particular topical interest or expertise who would work on data literacy in that specific sector.

Next Steps

We are continuously working to improve the Fellowship process and are overjoyed most of our past Fellows go on to become active members of the School of Data network. Over the next few months, we will be posting a series of articles about the Fellowship programme including:

  • Steps we have taken to ensure diversity in each Fellowship class as well as the challenges we still face in terms of inclusivity
  • Funding the low-visibility infrastructure-building work that is a critical part of the Fellowship process
  • How and where we have struggled to make the Fellowship model work and plan we have for changing that

We welcome any thoughts and feedback that you have. Get in touch on twitter @schoolofdata or via our contact page.

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