Knowledge from failure: learnings from the Civic Tech Field Guide

Matt Stempeck
Micah L. Sifry

18 Apr 2018, 4:30 p.m.
Auditorium 2

The Civic Tech Field Guide is a living database of more than 1,500 existing tech tools, projects, and organisations worldwide, organised by function, that anyone can access and edit. Since its launch at TicTEC 2016, it has doubled in size, with contributions from thirty countries.

Of the roughly 800 tools, apps, platforms, and companies in the guide, about 50 are defunct or no longer serving their original purpose. In this talk/workshop, guide co-creators Matt Stempeck and Micah Sifry describe four common reasons that Civic Tech projects fail, using specific examples sourced from the guide, and then engage the audience in an interactive conversation about the major modes of failure.

The first reason is failure to gain users. A number of Civic Tech startups have had ample early funding, but built a tool or platform that users did not have interest in. These include ChangeByUs and Jumo (funded by Knight), VoteIQ,,,,,, and Votizen (all social networks for voter information).

A second reason is product shutdowns. A number of promising Civic Tech tools have failed mainly because their owner decided to focus on more promising projects in their portfolio. Examples include Pledgebank (closed by mySociety) and (closed by Sunlight Foundation). Often these tools were seen as redundant because another entity was already performing their service well.

A third reason is talent acquisitions. Some Civic Tech projects fail because they get bought to acquire their staff talent and are subsequently shut down. Examples include Localocracy (bought by the Huffington Post) and ElectNext (bought by

Finally, in competitive functional categories like gaming, Civic Tech products often fail because they were never designed to endure. Many of these games were launched with no consideration to long-term plans, and were then left to wallow as technology inevitably moved on. Examples include Budget Ball, Macon Money, and a host of Flash-based games. In these cases, we might judge the value of quick games and other ephemeral Civic Tech products as statements in a moment of time rather than lasting organisations.