In Europe, the Housing Project — an open collaborative network for journalists and other researchers working on housing issues — is fostering cross-border investigations into Airbnb regulations

One day in October 2019 a colleague alerted me to a meeting in Munich of representatives of European cities to discuss the impact of Airbnb on rental markets. There was a little information in the German press but I couldn’t find anything in English, Spanish, or French (the languages I speak). I wrote to a mailing list we at Arena for Journalism in Europe had launched some weeks before, and I asked if anyone knew anything.

After a few days and several emails from colleagues in Belgium, the U.K., Italy, France, and also the U.S., we managed to put together the bigger picture. A network of European municipalities had quietly organized to lobby the European Union (EU) to get more regulatory powers to deal with the impact of short-term rentals. On the other side, Airbnb, the main company in that business, had also been busy lobbying the EU, seemingly to keep its activity as free from local regulations as possible.

We also found out that, around the same time, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) was taking longer than usual to rule in a case brought against Airbnb by a French tourism and lodging association, which claimed that Airbnb acted as an estate agent without holding the proper license. The ECJ subsequently ruled in Airbnb’s favor.

Previously, we all had had different pieces of information, but by being on the mailing list, everybody got the bigger picture and a transnational overview of an issue that is mostly felt, and reported on, at the local level.

And that had been precisely Arena’s aim when a few months earlier we had launched the Housing Project, an open collaborative network for journalists and other researchers working on housing issues across Europe.

Today, almost every social, economic, and political issue has a transnational dimension, not least in Europe with its single market and common regulatory policies. Cross-border collaboration is a must if we are to untangle such transnational complexities. And while thankfully these days we are seeing more and more collaborative investigations, they tend to happen within closed networks and are too often reliant on big leaks.

What could be done to facilitate more collaboration, from simple data- and information-sharing to launching complex cross-border investigations? In 2019, I coordinated a track on housing reporting at Dataharvest, the European data, investigative, and collaborative journalism conference organized annually by Arena.

We were happy to find many good stories about housing from different parts of Europe. But we also noticed that most of those journalists didn’t know of each other’s reporting. That meant all kinds of opportunities for collaboration and building on each other’s work to reach wider audiences were being missed.

What about utilizing the gathering and the momentum at Dataharvest to launch a network of journalists working on housing across Europe? We envisioned an open network, accessible to all, where data and information are shared freely so that together we get the bigger picture. A network that would promote collaborations aimed at reaching transnational audiences and generating a public conversation all the way up to the European level.

Near the end of the conference, we held a brainstorming roundtable with journalists and housing experts from around Europe to discuss how to move ahead with the network. The first step was setting up the mailing list, which very quickly grew to more than 100 members and soon showed its potential to piece together cross-border stories and investigations.

One year later, the infrastructure making up the Housing Project includes a newsletter, a Twitter account, an online library of information, and an online collaborative environment, similar to those used by investigative collectives and consisting of cloud, office, and wiki software and a private chat application, all hosted on Arena’s server.

Through the Housing Project, Arena is currently involved in some big cross-border investigations. We’ve been giving talks and webinars on how to launch collaborative networks and cross-border reporting, and at least one academic researcher is looking into the Housing Project to study journalism networks.

For Arena, the Housing Project is an experiment and a pilot project. We are learning by doing, and there remain open questions about how best to realize the potential of topic-based open networks for journalists.

While the mailing list has over 210 members, just a few are very active and regularly contribute to it, apart from those of us working with Arena. And when last April we launched collaborative databases to compile government housing policies responding to the Covid-19 crisis, almost all the work had to be done by Arena even though the databases were very positively received.

To respect people’s privacy, we don’t track visits to the online library we call a knowledge base nor to other public resources like the collaborative databases. And by this point we haven’t received much feedback about how useful the newsletter and the Twitter account are to journalists.

As an open project that also wants to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations, the network includes policy experts, academic researchers, professional campaigners, housing advocates, and activists. And even though the great majority in the network are journalists, interestingly many of the people most actively engaged are from one of those other fields.

While we welcome all contributions, we aim to make the Housing Project a network by and mostly for journalists. We believe it’s journalists who can benefit the most from open collaborations and who often lack the time and other resources to participate in such exchanges. Most of the members in the extended network are from Western European countries, and there’s a long way to go to achieve geographical and cultural diversity.

We know of some journalistic reports that were done thanks to the Housing Project, the feedback we receive is generally positive, and in the coming months the first outcomes of the cross-border investigations we are involved in should become public.

However, the Housing Project’s nature as an open network makes it hard to measure the impact it has on journalistic research and reporting. And building and keeping the network active and alive, with a public presence, and as a dynamic space where journalists share data and information and where potential collaborations are born, has indeed required much work.

Such open questions is what experiments and pilot projects generate. And as we are convinced the answers will lead to more collaboration, at Arena we are already using those lessons learned to invest in a new open network for journalists working on the energy dimension of the climate crisis, which is the focus of this year’s Dataharvest.

Dealing with complex transnational topics as journalists requires cross-border collaboration; there’s no way around it. And while we used to hear that in the future collaborations would define journalism, we now know we live already in that future and the present of journalism can only be collaborative.

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