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Some Knight News Challenge Semifinalists Sound Awfully Familiar

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, April 3 2013

How fitting for people so concerned with the future of news to want to spend so much money on the problems of the future rather than those of the present.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Tuesday that administrators of its Knight News Challenge contest had winnowed more than 880 entrants down to a list of just 40 semifinalists, projects running the gamut from social-networking platforms to local civic education programs. Over the next couple of weeks, the list will be cut again to an even shorter selection of winners, each of whom will get some portion of $5 million in prize money.

Many of these ideas seem worthy of some time and treasure. All of the potential winners have bona fides in what you might call the "open government" space, and a few of them are people who have already worked with Knight Foundation support or are already within the Knight network of funders and influencers. The projects that aren't built yet make sense as things you might expect the people who propose to build them to actually deliver.

But there are a few projects among these finalists that revolve around a certain type of pie-in-the-sky thinking that open government practitioners should have left behind some time ago. There's nothing necessarily wrong with reaching for the future politics that the author Steven B. Johnson has dubbed "peer progressivism," but there are proposals that do this in way that others have already tried — and failed.

In the "peer progressive" frame, people form ad-hoc networks to solve this or that task: Raise money to fill some unmet need, devise a response to request for information on policy, collaborate on some scientific or artistic advancement in pursuit of a prize. Recently, a pair of self-described "peer progressives" — Jim Pugh and Catherine Bracy, who served as technologists for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns respectively — described peer progressivism as an ideology that prizes both efficiency and inclusiveness. They say peer progressive entrepreneurs innovate, and ad-hoc networks fill unmet civic needs, but they still expect government and institutions to provide a social safety net. Their future frame, in other words, does not leave behind the institutions created in the New Deal or under Obama, like the Affordable Care Act's expansion of health care coverage or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That is, so long as there are progressives around to protect and maintain those institutions, in their own networked way. It's certainly a starting point, but assuming for a moment this is a palatable approach to running a country, it misses something.

There aren't enough "peers."

There are supposed to be about 700,000 people in each congressional district, for instance — the median is about 710,000, and the actual number varies from more than 900,000 to more than 520,000 — but many members of Congress were elected in 2012 with fewer than 200,000 votes. In Florida, lawmakers running unopposed need not stand for election — meaning two members of Congress did not even need to run!

American elections have what you might call a notoriously baffling user interface, but that alone isn't the problem. Even the slickest of slick web-based online designs, tried year after year, have not captured the interest of "users" who — like voters — have no immediate and compelling reason to give your pressing civic issues the time of day.

That hasn't stopped a new wave of well-meaning, if optimistic, entrepreneurs from making similar assumptions about an audience that just isn't there.

Take CivicIQ. The design firm Artefact, its creator, wants to build a "carefully designed user interface" to help people figure out where they sit on the political spectrum using a "series of questions." CivicIQ doesn't exist yet. It is, as described in its application materials, vaporware. But that didn't stop Fast Company from celebrating its idealistic spirit with an extensive profile, asking: "Can design make online debate less toxic?"

Not a bad sort of thing to want, and certainly good design is always a useful tool. But it is just an idea.

And it's an echo of something that's already been tried.

Civic IQ's premise is that people will answer questions about themselves, and those questions will inform what they see as they are guided through the process of agreeing or disagreeing with other users on this or that policy issue. The ends are different, but the means — asking the same kinds of awkward personal questions one might expect on a bad first date — are the same ones ElectNext tried when it launched in December 2011.

Based on what users said about themselves and their policy positions, ElectNext matched them with a candidate for president.

"A matchmaker, a la eHarmony, for voters and political candidates," we wrote of ElectNext in 2011. "The goal is to provide busy voters an efficient way to figure who they should vote for based on the issues alone, versus political branding."

The company says that they "served" 3 million users in 2012. But it might say something about how sustainable that enterprise can be to note that they've dropped their quiz-show interface to launch a completely new business.

"Remember our 2012 candidate-matcher? No worries, we barely do either," the company explains in an April 2 blog post. "We only bring it up to make this point: we have data on your politicians. All of them. From your city councilperson all the way up to President."

ElectNext has raised a $1.3 million venture round to take a different direction. ElectNext is no longer a social network hoping to fix politics. It's positioning itself instead as a provider of political data and data widgets for news companies, taking advantage of the vast (and valuable) trove of data that they took the time to interconnect.

Gone is the idea that ElectNext would be a portal for the mythical interested voter. Instead, ElectNext is selling its data trove to media companies — who really do have an appetite for information on politicians.

They're just the latest start-up to abandon the idea of serving as a central civic portal, and one of the rare lucky ones to find money for a pivot rather than fold or be acquired.

Votizen launched in 2011 as a voter-facing application that hoped to make money by mobilizing all those frustrated citizens out there just bursting at the seams with unspent civic energy, waiting for the opportunity to use the Internet on behalf of their candidate of choice. Votizen never drew enough users to succeed and was acquired in late 2012 by Causes.com. It wasn't for want of good user experience design that this experiment failed — one of Votizen's co-founders rose to private-sector prominence for the work he did on Mint.com, the well-regarded personal finance website.

Design alone is not enough.

The failure of one-stop "civic" websites to draw users goes back years. Micah Sifry floated a longer list last year: Voter.com, Vote.com, Speakout.com, Essembly.com, HotSoup.com, VoteIQ.com — all of these tried the same variation on "make politics social" and are now consigned to the dustbin of history.

Civic IQ is not the only project among Knight's finalists that proposes to break out of this cycle. There are others:

  • Doug Meehan is proposing Possible City, a tool that will identify vacant properties and then "visualize the formation of networks around topics such as Food, Energy, Health, Education, and Public Space." The idea stems, Meehan says, from his work running "idea competitions" to ask citizens to come up with things to do with vacant space. It seems like a high-tech version of the same tactics some DIY urbanists took with Renew Newcastle, where a non-profit acted as a middleman between land owners who didn't want risky or long-term tenants in their vacant buildings and a network of artists, artisans, and entrepreneurs looking for temporary accommodations for a special project or a budding business. Only where Possible City stays in the realm of the "possible," Renew Newcastle — and other projects around the world where similar ideas have been tried — was less about "visualize" and more about "actualize," less about theory and more about the practice of urban politics and economic development. Renew Newcastle had two well-defined groups of users: Landlords open to the idea of short-term leases, and entrepreneurs and artists looking for short-term space. "Possible City" could possibly be a good idea, but who specifically will its users be and what specific need will the site fulfill?

  • "GoLocal" would create a "social dashboard" for an "open data"-powered look at local news.

  • This project wants to offer voting functionality for public meetings. It's sponsored by two media outlets — and a company that offers remote voting tools.

Not all of the Knight News Challenge semi-finalists are so aggressively reliant on the nonexistent hunger of an indifferent public. Max Ogden, a Code for America: Season One alumni and bearded American, wants money to build a Raspberry Pi-powered sensor system that would offer independent, detailed traffic counts — of bike as well as pedestrian and vehicle traffic — for use in city planning.

A nonprofit wants to host training programs in low-income communities. In a program with the working title "Open Gov for the Rest of Us," the nonprofit would teach tech-savvy civics, showing people in Chicago neighborhoods how to use Internet tools to find information about what's going in their neighborhoods and use that knowledge on their own behalf.

Sites like Votizen suffered the same basic problem that has been shuttering statehouse news bureaus and the D.C. offices of regional papers — there is low market demand for political intelligence. They certainly propose to give people something they might need — it's just not something they want.

Wouldn't it make more sense to launch a platform like "GoLocal," which is focused on California, after running a program like the education initiative based in Chicago?

These platform proposals aren't necessarily bad ideas. In fact, GoLocal is one of a few projects that wisely imply they might focus on a more narrow prospective audience, like journalists and other civic power users, rather than a larger, general hypothetical public yearning for more information.

However, they don't address the long history of failure that comes with their trope. Projects that want to be public-facing portals should be up front about where there users will come from and how they know they're addressing a need shared by enough people to power a business. (Take Housing Checkup, which has a clear audience, prospective renters, and fills an obvious need, promising to act as a sort of Carfax for apartments.)

These projects might even be ahead of their time — but they're not right for the moment.

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