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Knowledge from failure: learnings from the Civic Tech Field Guide (Matt Stempeck and Micah L. Sifry - Civic Hall)


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This was presented by Matt Stempeck and Micah L. Sifry from Civic Hall at the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC 2018) in Lisbon on 18th April 2018. You can find out more information about the conference here:

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Knowledge from failure: learnings from the Civic Tech Field Guide (Matt Stempeck and Micah L. Sifry - Civic Hall)

  1. 1. Knowledge from failure Micah Sifry and Matt Stempeck #learnfail
  2. 2. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas Edison
  3. 3. “Always make new mistakes.” - Esther Dyson
  4. 4. Civic tech is full of successes Crowdfunding: Kickstarter, GoFundme, Ulule, Startnext Feedback/ideation platforms: PlaceSpeak, Neighborland Issue reporting: FixMyStreet, SeeClickFix, Repara Ciudad Voter information:, Organizing platforms: NationBuilder, ActionNetwork Petition platforms: Local community forums: Front Porch Forum, Local Circles Event organizing: Meetup Benefits access: mRelief, Benefit Kitchen Open data management: Socrata Constituent communications: Granicus
  5. 5. But failure isn’t unusual
  6. 6. 75% of VC-funded tech startups in the United States fail (out of 2000 startups with >$1M funding between 2004-10)
  7. 7. Top reasons start-ups give for failing No market need: 42% Poor marketing: 14% Out of money: 29% Bad timing: 13% Not the right team: 23% Lack of focus: 13% Got outcompeted: 19% Bad pivot: 10% Pricing/cost issues: 18% Lack of passion: 9% Product too hard to use: 17% Failed expansion: 9% (Source: CB Insights, Feb 2018)
  8. 8. Patterns of Civic tech failure
  9. 9. 1. Not enough users Even with ample funding, if you build it, they don’t come (see “lean startups”)
  10. 10. 2.pruning weaker projects We can’t sustain everything, and sometimes it’s already being done well elsewhere
  11. 11. 3. Talent acquisition A promising startup, but maybe a more valuable team
  12. 12. 5 clusters of failure Of 44 entities in the Field Guide graveyard, two-thirds were in just 5 categories: 9 were collective action via crowdfunding/sourcing 7 were social networks for politics/engagement 6 were opinion matching sites 3 were local forums 3 were civic discussion hubs
  13. 13. 1.Failed Collective action hubs PledgeBank (2005-2015) The Point (2007-2008) CarrotMob (2008-2013) Loudsauce/Louder (2009-2015) RedBlue Voice (2011-2012) The Spring (2013-2014) CivicShopping (2013-2014) If.Then.Fund (2014-2017) Citizinvestor (2014-2017)
  14. 14. Lessons The dilemma of collective action is real Don’t ask people to do something really hard or out-of-the-ordinary Other entry points (like petitions) gather crowds more effectively Simple as-needed solutions (like #hashtag campaigns + GoFundMe) beat hubs Urgency matters
  15. 15. 2. Failed social networks for politics (1999-2001) (1999-2001) (2006-2007) GovTrack Insider (2009-2010) (2010-2012) (2005-2016) (2008-2017)
  16. 16. lessons Politics is complicated Politics is partisan Random site visitors aren’t of interest to representatives Incumbent hubs serve well enough Winning SEO isn’t enough Nifty features may not grow a consistent user base
  17. 17. 3. failed opinion matching sites (1997-2000) (1997-2006) (2010-2011) Votizen (2010-2013) (2011-2013) Simpolfy (2014-2017)
  18. 18. lessons Politics is complicated Politics is partisan “Who should I vote for” is not a “toothbrush problem” Social sharing of personal voting information is not commonplace enough
  19. 19. 4. Failed hyper-local forums Outside/In (2006-2011, acquired by AOL-Patch) Everyblock (2007-2009, acquired by MSNBC) Blockboard (2010-2012)
  20. 20. lessons No one can make hyper-local news work Timing? Pre-smartphones? Timing? Now Google and Facebook are highlighting local news Twitter and Facebook filled the hyper-local gap
  21. 21. This is one reason we are building the civic tech field guide
  22. 22. Add your data Help organize civic tech Micah Sifry Matt Stempeck
  23. 23. 5. Failed civic discussion forums DebateAmerica (1999-2002) Essembly (2005-2006) Civil Pursuit (2013-2017)
  24. 24. lessons Americans aren’t searching for cross-partisan debate opportunities Culture? British debate sites appear to be thriving