Hindrances

Learning (or not) from failure; GOP voter data snarls; and more.


  • This is civic tech: The 7th Annual National Day of Civic Hacking is coming up September 21st; find out more here.

  • The Civic Tech Field Guide has a whole section called the Graveyard, dedicated to chronicling notable failures in civic tech, particularly when a start-up managed to raise real capital and gained some traction, but still closed down. The lessons to be learned can be quite valuable. But as Nellie Bowles reports for The New York Times, too often in Silicon Valley there’s a code of silence when it comes to talking about prominent tech failures, like AltSchool, which was backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel. That attempt at “disrupting” public education just shut down after raising $174 million, but when investor Jason Palmer shared a tweet trying to draw some lessons — “We passed on @Altschool multiple times, mainly because disrupting school was a terrible strategy, but also b/c founders didn’t understand #edtech is all about partnering w/existing districts, schools and educators (not just “product”)” — his peers came down on him hard for seeming to cheer a company’s failure and for suggesting that not everyone who is convinced they are changing the world for the better really is. The horror, the horror!

  • By the way, when you read about some of AltSchool’s so-called innovations, you will dance a jig knowing that it failed. “At AltSchool, attendance got a makeover, with even kindergartners signing in on an iPad. Kids got a ‘playlist’ of activities that used a mix of apps. Cameras on the walls recorded lessons so teachers could review them later.” The school charged $27,000 for tuition at its prototype schools in the Bay Area and NYC’s East Village.

  • Speaking of learning from failure: here’s a useful post-mortem on the pending closure of a long-running German civic tech website, kleineAnfragen, which is a searchable, machine-readable repository of answers to parliamentary inquiries for all 16 German states as well as the federal government, run by a volunteer who has just about had it with the failure of the government to make this information available as open data.

  • Apply: With New Media Ventures’ founding president Christie George stepping down after a highly productive first ten years, the organization is looking to hire its next president.

  • Epstein continued: Bill Gates says he met with Jeffrey Epstein because “There were people around him who were saying, hey, if you want to raise money for global health and get more philanthropy, he knows a lot of rich people.” Look, I know when you are one of the world’s richest men it’s hard to get people to take a meeting with you, but I thought being rich also meant that you must be smart.

  • Gosh, I had forgotten that Reid Hoffman had proposed a “decency pledge” two years ago to shine more light on bad behavior in the VC world. Thanks to the Daily Beast’s Blake Montgomery and Taylor Hatmaker for remembering.

  • With the help of Sarah Szalavitz, a social designer who was an external fellow at the MIT Media Lab, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo nails yet more reason to be outraged by the whole Epstein affair and what it represented: The world exposed here was totally male-dominated. Says Szalavitz, “What happens when women don’t get invited to these dinners is they lose out on professional opportunities. It’s not a grand conspiracy. It’s just a fact: When you have an event on a private beach owned by a sex trafficker, women don’t get invited. They don’t get invited to the private island. They don’t get invited to the sex trafficker’s conferences. They don’t get invited to speak.”

  • Privacy, shmivacy: The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the University of Nevada are building an interactive inventory of surveillance, called the Atlas of Surveillance project, starting with a focus on border-facing counties in the southwest, Karl Bode reports for Vice.

  • What sharing economy? California has enacted a new law that will require companies like Uber and Lyft to treat contract workers like drivers as regular employees with rights, Kate Conger and Noam Scheiber report for The New York Times. Similar legislation is being pushed in other states.

  • Tech and politics: Today’s must-read is Peter Elkind and Doris Burke‘s in-depth investigation for ProPublica and the Texas Monthly into Brad Parscale, Donald Trump‘s digital campaign director, who is not only not telling the public the truth about how much money he is making from digital politics, but who is doing something very subtle and telling in how he is managing the Republican National Committee’s use of voter data. Elkind and Burke write: “Since Trump’s election in 2016, critical ‘voter scores’ — sophisticated polling-based analytics that the RNC provides to party committees and candidates — have conspicuously omitted an essential detail for any down-ballot race: how voters in specific states and congressional districts feel about Trump. Republican insiders believe these analytics are being withheld to try and prevent GOP candidates from publicly distancing themselves from the president or leaking unfavorable results that embarrass Trump.” One national GOP data official, who was repeatedly blocked from getting the information, said: “There has been a major decision to lock down the Trump voter scores.” He calls this “Trump-first mentality” at the RNC “outside the norm” and a “major hindrance” to the success of down-ballot candidates.

  • Aaron Gell reports for Medium on anti-fascist activists who spend their time sleuthing out the real identities of neo-Nazis from their online trail and exposing them with the goal of causing them to be socially ostracized and economically marginalized. Journalist Molly Conger notes, “I like to tell people if you’ve ever stayed up all night scouring Instagram for pictures of your ex’s wedding, you can do this. It’s the same skills.”

  • Also this: Why it’s time to kill televised presidential debates, by Douglas Rushkoff. The quick version: TV rewards spectacle, and especially likes performances with happy endings; by making the candidates compete for the job of TV host, the DNC has insured that TV values will rule the contest.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up to our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.