Brigade Fires Back

Matt Mahan, CEO of Brigade, responds; fighting bias vs "moving fast," and more.


  • Matt Mahan, the CEO of Brigade, the ill-starred civic tech start-up that billionaire Sean Parker burned a few weddings on, writes to take issue with Tuesday’s First Post commenting on Brigade’s break-up. Here’s what he had to say, lightly edited for space:

    Read your commentary. Some of it is fair. To be sure, we attempted a big, risky idea with a low probability of success (a social network for voters, built around political districts and ideological alignment, an attempted twist on NextDoor and LinkedIn) and it didn’t work at the scale or impact we wanted. You were correct that the demand wasn’t there, at least in the way we implemented the idea. Change.org and Countable are finding greater scale with their approach to the same problem. Brigade, CrowdPac and many others, less so. It’s good to have a diversity of bets in the space. I had the same fear about demand as you, as did most of the VCs we talked to in 2015, but I don’t regret trying. We reached millions of voters with better ballot guides and p2p get out the vote messages, predicted the 2016 race when no one else did, and we have small groups of activists across the country who met through Brigade-based campaigns and are continuing to work on important issues together today. On the technical front, I think we’re positioned to contribute to others’ work in what is a very tough space.

    Two points of fact that I’d appreciate seeing accurately reflected in your obviously biased commentary on Brigade: 

    A) A number of us in the company from founding or shortly thereafter had worked on political campaigns as staff, including presidential (Matt Wilson on John Kerry; Gitesh Gohel on Obama ’08), gubernatorial (myself on Robert Reich in MA) and local. Adam Conner was arguably better plugged into tech trends in electoral politics than almost anyone. Many on the team had volunteered deeply on campaigns as well. I’m not sure where the myth of “tech kids with no prior experience” has come from. In fact, I never had an interest in tech per se; tech was simply one pathway to try to make our politics more responsive after working on numerous advocacy and electoral campaigns. Sean [Parker] and John Thrall (CTO) had maybe never worked directly on a campaign, but a number of us had been paid staff on past campaigns and our idea was to try to bring together first-hand campaign/organizing experience with great technical leadership.

    B) When I stepped into the CEO role it is true that the leadership team was entirely male. This was partly because Causes and Votizen each had two male founders and were merged together (I was not a cofounder of either). Over the course of the next few years I worked hard to achieve a more balanced ratio of men to women on our leadership team (hiring two women into VP roles) and hired a person of color as our VP of Product. By the end, our two most senior engineers were women. We implemented hidden bias trainings for the entire team along with other coaching. We also actively sponsored Code 2040 and hired multiple people out of their process. We provided a handful of paid internships each year and spent significant time mentoring a diverse range of aspiring young engineers. Your characterization of our mentality does not align with our values or actions as a company.
  • This is civic tech: Say hello to the 2019 Presidential Innovation Fellows, 17 entrepreneurs, technologists and designers who will be working with agencies across the federal government.

  • Big urban libraries are starting to take a more active role in stewarding their city’s open data, Linda Poon reports for CityLab.

  • Attend: FairSay’s 2019 Campaigning Forum is coming up April 9-10 in Oxford with a focus on campaigning to counter fear mongering and fake news.

  • Tech and politics: The Department of Homeland Security has been quietly downsizing two task forces focused on securing election infrastructure and defending against foreign influence efforts, Erin Banco and Betsy Woodruff report for The Daily Beast.

  • Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is calling on Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Microsoft to remove Absher, an Saudi government-made app that men there use to track and control women under their guardianship, from their app stores. “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” Wyden writes in a letter to the two CEOs.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Yael Eisenstat, a former CIA officer and top national security adviser, who did a brief stint at Facebook as head of elections integrity operation last year, writes in Wired that while big tech firms genuinely want to avoid building biased artificial intelligence systems, they also lack people who actually know what it means to “counter bias in any true and methodical way.” She writes:

    Judging by some of the ideas batted around by my Facebook colleagues, none of the things I had spent years doing—structured analytic techniques, weighing evidence, not jumping to conclusions, challenging assumptions—were normal practice, even when it came to solving for the real-world consequences of the products they were building. In large part, the “move fast” culture is antithetical to these techniques, as they require slowing down when facing important decisions.
  • Very related: A new paper by Rashida Robinson, Jason Schultz and Kate Crawford examines how so-called “dirty- policing” methods of systemic data manipulation, falsified police reports, unlawful use of force and planted evidence may shape the environment and methodology by which data is created.

  • Related, kind of: This thread on lessons of the Challenger disaster, which happened just over 33 years ago.

  • End times: Recode’s Kara Swisher asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for an example of an influential Twitterer whose use of the platform Dorsey admired, and the results (he said Elon Musk of Tesla) are hilarious.