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When Technology Doesn’t Work

OPEN CITIES | Christian Madera

Credit: Jen R.

If you follow the Gov 2.0 and Open Data circles with any regularity, you’ve probably noticed that hardly a month goes by without some new and exciting new media project or application being announced – one whose founders hope will provide a powerful new way for people to communicate or interact with government or each other.

Certainly learning about a new worthwhile web tool or project is exciting – especially when it offers lessons for how to do or replicate something similar elsewhere. Yet, for each new app or initiative that gets launched, I’d venture to guess there are probably dozens of projects that failed (or plans that never got off the ground in the first place). And these failures offer just as much (if not more) potential for learning about how to and not to do something.

However, these types of failures don’t get much attention – and are often deliberately hidden or played down. After all, these can be potential embarrassing, especially for governments and elected officials or non-profit organizations that have to answer to donors. To combat this phenomenon, MobileActive, a non-profit organization that helps anti-poverty and international development groups use technology effectively, has pioneered a useful model for bringing these failures out into the open.

Dubbed ‘FailFaires’, the events bring people together in a casual and relaxed setting over drinks and nibbles after work. There are no name tags or structured agendas. Rather, a series of presenters give short, informal, story-like presentations – discussing a project, its outcome and the reasons for its failure. Hosted in New York and Washington, D.C. thus far, MobileActive hopes that the idea will expand to other cities and fields.

Beyond this ‘offline’ model, one could also envision a wiki or discussion forum that was dedicated to sharing mistakes and failures regarding the use of information and communication technology in government and civic organizations – just as resources dedicated to disseminating best practices and case studies function to disseminate success stories.

Given that many new media enthusiasts are eager to increase transparency and openness about what goes on in government, it seems that frank discussion about initiatives and apps that aren’t so successful would only be fitting.

Christian Madera writes the Open Cities column for Next American City. He is a former managing editor of Planetizen, and has spent the last decade working in the fields of urban planning policy and web technology.


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Sonny Hashmi

This sounds really cool. I’d love to attend if there is an event in the DC area. We all have our own secret graveyards of failed projects and i’d love to share mine. Lesoons learned only help