My failures: Civic technology ideas that didn’t quite work.
So many ideas
Júlia Keserű is asking on the Sunlight Foundation blog for civic technologists to submit our failure stories.
Well I have plenty. Here are a few.
I want to add the caveat that I don’t regret trying any of these things, and so “failure” might be a bit strong — sorry for the clickbait. Some of these might have led to successes down the road, and most had collateral benefits. But evaluated on their own terms, these endeavors came up short:
The First GovTrack Insider (2009–2010)
In the midst of the debate over healthcare back in 2009–2010, and while GovTrack usage was reaching an all-time high, I quietly launched what was the first GovTrack Insider:
I hired a small team of “reporters” (I think I found most on craigslist) to watch congressional hearings and write up what happened. I combined this with aggregated content from OpenCongress’s blog (mostly by Donny Shaw), Jim Harper’s blog posts on WashingtonWatch, and some other sources in an attempt to create a deep-dive picture of what Congress did each day.
This went on from November 2009 through May 2010.
No one read it.
To be sure, I didn’t promote it on GovTrack very well or very much. No one wanted to read about what committees were voting on anyway.
(Hat tip to Greg Elin who helped me name the site and to Jeremy Koulish — who is still active in the open government world today — who did some of the reporting.)
Real Congress: Like C-SPAN, but C-SPAN
Around the same time, I decided that the most important value of my work on legislative information is explaining to the American public not what our government is doing but how our government actually works.
So in 2009 I began planning an interactive media project to take Americans inside the halls of Congress. I called it a reality TV show about Congress. Everyone just said that was C-SPAN.
At that year’s Transparency Camp West I met MAPLight’s research director Emily Calhoun, who — in a stroke of massive luck — had experience in documentary film making. (She’s producing a cool film right now.) So I recruited Emily and Jay Dedman, who I think had produced Transparency Camp (East)’s event video, to work on this project with me.
It was an ambitious idea that would have relied on deep access to insider meetings, lots of time and expense on video production, and community development.
We wrote a grant proposal and I started to contact folks that might help, but Knight Foundation’s super insulting rejection letter made me realize I did not want to spend my time begging for money. That was pretty much the end of that. I also didn’t have the access to Congress that I thought I had.
Not satisfied with my earlier failures with GovTrack Insider or Real Congress, I tried again the next year by combining the two ideas: videos about bills.
In late 2010, I produced two videos on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act with the help of Patrick Tutwiler. Then in 2013 I produced a video about gricklock in Congress with my friend and colleague Aviad Eilam:
I promoted the videos to GovTrack users. They got a handful of views.
But, again, no one cared.
If you’ve never made a video like this before, let me tell you it takes a ridiculous amount of time even to make a short video.
A Collaboratively Written Petition
Everyone has long known that petitions are not effective for legislative advocacy. So when David Stern and colleagues launched MixedInk, a collaborative writing platform, I was interested to see how it could be used for legislative advocacy.
We tried a hybrid of a written letter and a petition. 450 GovTrack users came together to collaboratively write a letter to Congress about a gun control bill using their MixedInk tool, and then later over 3,000 other users signed the letter.
David and I delivered the letter personally to nine congressional offices to see what their reaction was.
The staffers we talked to while delivering the letter didn’t think what we did was interesting. To them, it was a petition. Maybe we just didn’t have enough participants.
The Semantic Web for Legislative Data
Back around 2005–2006 I was a big believer in the semantic web. I took the legislative data on GovTrack and produced the largest linked open data database at the time. My conference talks around this time discussed how linked data would make it easier to build great tools for civic technology.
That never happened.
I co-founded POPVOX in 2010 and left in 2012. The last time I said anything publicly about POPVOX they threatened to sue me, so...
Paid GovTrack Subscriptions
Some time in 2013 I was thinking that if I had more money, that would really be swell. So I came up with a way that GovTrack users might pay for some service. I didn’t want to sell access to information, of course. Instead, I let users pay to hide the advertisements.
GovTrack has always been supported through advertising, and that’s been profitable enough to pay for GovTrack’s operating costs (the server, etc.) and a lot of my time spent on civic tech. But more money is always better, right?
So I built a way for users to PayPal the site some money, and that went up in 2013. For the last two years, there has been a link below every advertisement offering users this option. (The link is still there, although the page is branded differently now and I’ve varied the price substantially over the years to see what price worked best.)
In total, over the last two years, I raised $589 from 104 people.
It cost me more, in terms of my time, to build the order processing form than what I made back from people’s subscriptions. This was a net loss.
(The idea was sparked by something Irina Bolychevsky said to me at Transparency Camp, and I had seen much talk of micropayments replacing ads.)
ANCFinder is a project I work on at Code for DC, primarily with Steven Reilly, Kelli Shewmaker, Leah Bannon, and a handful of other generous volunteers. The site is about the District of Columbia’s hyper-local Advisory Neighborhood Commission system.
Our site is kind of like a GovTrack for a very narrow and local aspect of DC municipal government:
We built a shiny website explaining the ANC system and linking to documents produced by the ANCs (meeting minutes and so on), and we have a bot tweeting when there are ANC meetings. The project began in early 2013.
No one uses the website. We do have some actual Twitter followers though.
What happened? We didn’t get any buy-in from ANC commissioners or the city government. Did we try? We had some meetings, but we didn’t follow-through very well.
The bottom line is, we’ve been building for, instead of with.
Which isn’t to say there was no value here. In fact, working on ANCFinder has been very valuable for me personally and for Code for DC as an organization. We’ve learned a lot about DC in the process — that’s hugely important — and the DC government has learned about us. But on its own terms, ANCFinder hasn’t really done much.
Okay this one is a bit different. ScrapStats was a project I worked on at the two-day National Geographic Future of Food Hackathon, on May 3–4, 2014.
Food issues are deeply important to me. (Aside: If they are to you too, support FoodCorps.) At this hackathon, my teammates and I were told to do something with some data given to us.
We built a visualization of how much food is wasted (see image at left). We throw away about half of what we create by the time food reaches the table!
Did we accomplish anything?
Well, I’ll start by saying we didn’t win the hackathon contest.
None of us had any expertise in this area, and so the hackathon judges told us that our visualization wasn’t relevant to actual problems of food waste. It wasn’t just that we didn’t accomplish anything, what we tried wasn’t even relevant. No surprise, really.
(Shout-out to my teammates Chris Courtney, Frank Bi, Mary Ellen Kustin, Ariel Min, Ellen Rolfes, and Rachel Jaffe, who were all a blast to work with.)
Right, but for the wrong reason
I’m best known for GovTrack.us. With 7 million users a year, plus millions more via other websites and apps and journalists that have used GovTrack’s open data, it is definitely a success story.
But I didn’t build it for the right reasons.
I thought I was building an accountability tool. I had just (in 2001) taken a class on how Congress sold out to the music and recording industries on copyright law, and I thought if only the American public had more information they could head-off these failures in government by voting more effectively in elections.
That was wrong.
Never to my knowledge has GovTrack affected an election.
It’s never revealed a scandal, gotten anyone fired, or uncovered a failure in the legislative process.
And that’s totally fine because there are lots of other reasons why GovTrack is important. Those reasons just weren’t why I began the project.
Some projects in progress that aren’t looking so great
This summer I hired an intern to write the second incarnation of GovTrack Insider, which is now on Medium. Did it succeed? I’m not sure yet. [Update Nov 2015-] I was able to raise $32,580 on Kickstarter to keep it going with paid staff, but once the money runs out early next year I’m not sure if there will be a sustainable way to keep doing real reporting on what Congress is up to each day.