Ouest Médialab: a cluster and independent media lab that supports the regional digital transition
This article was originally published on Méta-Media, as part of an editorial partnership between Méta-Media and WAN-IFRA. The interview was conducted by François Fluhr, France Télévisions, Prospective and Media Lab ©  All rights reserved.
With a geographical focus on West France, Ouest Médialab brings together a variety of actors around digital innovation projects in the regions Pays de la Loire and Bretagne.
After it was created in 2012, the lab needed some time to mature, assemble a sufficient number of people, and put in place a road map. It started its activites in 2013, around four strategic axes that remain the pillars of the project today:
- The ambition to develop the skills of the teams involved and to create synergies between different professions. This is a specific challenge in the media industry, where it has become essential to experiment with developers and designers for example.
- Research into new business models and sharing best practices. The goal is to support companies in their development or creation. This has also led Ouest Médialab to launch its incubator NMcube this year.
- Communication that places the spotlight on noteworthy innovation, especially on a local level – whether it’s media, schools, start-ups or even communities.
- Open innovation in the form of short and midterm projects aimed at bringing actors closer together and creating collaborations around digital topics. This allows the media lab to highlight its unique characteristic as an open lab, which is not connected to any one media group in particular.
Building a community
In addition to a small team of four employees, Ouest Médialab benefits from the voluntary support of its 130 members:
“The time our members dedicate to the activities we organise represents the equivalent of at least two full-timers,” says Ouest Médialab Director Julien Kostrèche. “The cluster brings together most of the local media in the region – including Ouest-France, Le Télégramme, France 3, France Bleu, local television stations, community radio – but also the communities, content agencies, startups, journalism schools, communication programs, design and computer science schools.”
To get to this point, it was necessary to find a common ground: the digital. Although not everybody starts at the same level, emphasises Julien: “While some only just got started with video for example, others are part of companies where this has been the core of their profession for a long time already.”
This led to the creation of the Médialab Speed Training event, during which professionals that master certain digital tools share their skills and best practices with their peers. The power of such a community is also that it opens up access to feedback from members. As they voice their needs during the experimentations, they allow the media lab to rethink and refocus its strategy accordingly.
It’s not self-evident however for actors that are at times competing to share like this, says Julien:
“When you create a lab like that, people need time to get to know each other, start trusting each other, and accept to share their challenges with each other. Sometimes you have to accept to lay yourself bare on certain questions.”
In response to this challenge, the Lab organised numerous workshops to allow everyone to exchange, propose their projects, and share their wishes, but also to get feedback. A great way to make everyone aware of the importance of this collective effort:
“Today people talk to us much more easily. They share their concerns with us and entrust us what they would like to do. It’s then up to us to get the right people around the table, so they all get excited about working together.”
Developing a method
It all starts with an ideation phase during which the lab uses design-thinking methods focused on the user. During this phase, all of the professions are placed at the same level:
“We don’t go into a segmented production line right away. We start thinking about the project first, and everyone is allowed to leave his usual field. A computer scientist can express himself on an editorial dimension; a journalist on the interface. This creates unique conversations and takes the teams out of their comfort zones.”
Next, the teams create a model and a prototype that they test in order to confront themselves with the user. Then everybody goes back to his or her expertise. This first phase is really difficult, according to Julien, because not everyone speaks the same language:
“We have to adapt to the themes that we’re working on. Doing data journalism and creating an application for valorising archives do not necessarily require the same skills.”
Although it’s a time-consuming method, it has proven itself indispensable. Going through these phases too quickly would mean reproducing the same old ways of producing content, with a fragmented transmission of information. This would result in projects that are incapable of going off the beating track.
Adapting to constraints
In order to work with media you have to be able to identify and deal with some of the elements that are likely to hold them back in their innovation ambitions:
“We started out with research labs initially. It was hard to get media on board that do not always have the time, the means, or this R&D culture, and who want to get results within shorter timeframes.”
In response to this, the Media lab team drew inspiration from hackathons and created Hyblabs. They bring together a hundred students from various disciplines (IT, design, media) into workgroups that tackle projects proposed by private media, community media and communication professionals. So far, 16 Hyblabs have taken place (3 to 4 a year), on topics ranging from data journalism and valorising archives to interactive storytelling and live coverage of events:
“You have to the find people who are excited about these things, but you also have to trigger enthusiasm within organisations. In the beginning, people would take holidays or participated when they had a day off. We said to ourselves ‘we have a problem’. So we kicked it up a few notches to convince the upper floors that they should free their teams for this.”
Unfortunately, the media economy doesn’t always allow for this. It remains difficult to make people accept the experimental nature of a project in a tense financial environment where every investment has to lead to concrete results quickly:
“It happens that media tell us ‘one of our journalists will join for 3 days, but you have to guarantee us we’ll get a result!’ But when we experiment, we can’t apply this kind of pressure – neither on the teams nor on the students that work together. You have to try to let go and accept the possibility of failure.”
A matter of good timing
The data journalism labs were one of the main successes of the Media Lab. Participants learned to collect, treat and visualise data to tell stories. The majority of the projects that came out of the hackathons have been published and well received by the audience. Some were even awarded and led to the creation of dedicated data teams, like those at Télégramme and Ouest-France:
“In the case of Télégramme, the journalist came with an ambition: map the transformation of the city of Brest. He collects data from the relevant services, draws on what was done on the city of Berlin and comes to the HybLab where he meets a team of students from Polytech (computer), AGR (web design), and Audencia SciencesCom (media). In four long days, they manage to produce and publish the content online, asking inhabitants from Brest what they think about the transformation of the city. It’s a hit and the project consolidates the decision of the press group management to create a dedicated data department with a full-time journalist.”
For Julien Kostrèche, the crucial challenge is to find the right scale and the right timing:
“Anything around data worked pretty well, because everyone got into that around more or less the same moment. There was also a great timing with the opening up of public data (Open Data), which brought us a lot of material and it was a moment where extraordinary tools were launched almost every month to visualise this data.”
Ouest Medialab has to constantly stay “on the edge”, to find new playing fields that are in line with both the constraints of the sector and the local scale, as well as the maturity of technologies and their applications.