FAILfaire: No #FAIL but a Huge Success

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Apr 15, 2010

MobileActive hosted the inaugural FAILfaire last night, bringing together mobile technologists and NGOs to talk about failed projects in M4D and ICT4D.  Presenters talked about their failed projects, answering the questions: "What was the project?  What was the failure? Why did it fail? And what would you do differently next time?” 

The event was filled to capacity with more than 70 people. The five presenters made us think (and laugh), and the audience asked some great questions. For those of you who couldn’t be there, here’s a quick look at the failed projects presented at the first (of what we hope will be many) FAILfaire. 

Bradford Frost: Not exactly...

Starting off the evening was Bradford Frost, who told the story of his failed non-profit venture, The goal of his project was to bridge the gap between people trying to recycle used phones and developing countries. He felt he had a strong idea and a strong brand with the tagline “One phone. Change the World,” and that there was enough of an untapped phone recycling market (the current cell phone recycling market only captures about 25% of reusable devices) for the project to succeed.

However, the project didn’t work out as Frost had hoped. He used Facebook ads in order to target a younger, social media-savvy audience. He spent 1,000 dollars to launch an ad campaign and $5000 in a partnership with a phone recycling company. In the end, the non-profit gathered 131 phones valued at a sum total of …$252. And many of those phones were donated through word-of-mouth connections (friends and family) rather than people who saw the Facebook ads.

The low response and low quality of some of the donated phones made this a financially unsustainable project. He says that some of the failure came from not recognizing early warning signs – it was difficult for him to find partners to back the project, and it eventually folded.  We also wonder that given the low prices, ubiquity, and phones-as-status symbols in many countries make recycled phones desirable at all. Brad ended his presentation joking, “I shudder when I hear people say ‘I want to start my own non-profit.’”

Matt Berg: SMS Billboard/Penny LED... #fails

Matt Berg (who we recently covered for his success with ChildCount and ChildCount+)  presented two projects, SMS Billboard and Penny LED. The SMS Billboard launched in Ghana; Berg wanted to take a village billboard system (inspired by Alfred Sirless’ system of using billboards to share village news and photos) marry it with RapidSMS. This would allow villagers to have access to information more quickly than if reporters were sharing the news by mouth, expanding the scope of the billboards. However, the RapidSMS billboards didn’t catch on. Berg attributes this to being unable to recreate the level of passion and commitment to the news that Sirless and his sources had for the area, saying, “You can’t recreate passion.”

His second presentation focused on the Penny LED system. The project was designed to meet the needs for cheap, reliable lighting in developing countries. His group wanted to build converters so that people could safely use car batteries to charge their LED lights (the car batteries put out electricity in a higher voltage than the lights could support), using old copper pennies as the means of conducting electircty. They gathered copper pennies and set up a group of people to build the converters; however, the converters were expensive to produce and the likelihood for error high. But what really killed the project was the availability of other, better resources. Berg says that the project was essentially a failure in market research – cheap converters already existed, and LED flashlights produced in China were cheap and ubiquitous, making the project unnecessary.

Chris Fabian/Erica Kochi: 5 Million Stories by 2010? Nope. 400.

UNICEF Innovations' Chris Fabian and Erica Kochi co-presented what they jokingly referred to as a "zombie project", because despite the fact that the project couldn’t get off the ground, it kept being half-heartedly restarted over the years. "Our Stories" was designed to give children around the world the chance to tell their stories to be published online as part of a look at the global experience of childhood, with the ultimate goal of having 5 million stories posted by 2010.

Launched in 2007, Kochi and Fabian estimate the project had a .008 success rate, since it only gathered 400 stories. They say that this project was a failure of real world application, in that although the idea was good, there was no real desire for it among the community it targeted. As Kochi explained, “No one asked for this.” Other problems included using proprietary, non-open source code so that they couldn’t adjust when there were problems, a lack of ownership and commitment to the project by key stakeholders, and a long timeline that mean that resources never aligned with needs – in 2007 there was money for PR, in 2008 pro-bonoe design resources, in 2009 the software development. In 2010, they finally shelved the project.

Ian Schuler: Election Observation in Montenegro. Manual Refresh.

The final presentation of the night came from Ian Schuler, who presented his experiences with election monitoring via SMS during the elections for Montenegrin independence in 2006 (read our interview with Schuler here). The initial system was designed to let election monitors send in SMS messages from polling stations across the country to report problems and results. The first test of the system resulted in none of the volunteers receiving confirmation texts that their SMSes had been received. Because the protocol for not receiving a confirmation text was to call into the main database, all of the volunteers began calling at once, overwhelming the system. The phones were linked to a computer database that was compiling the SMSes, and the amount of data overwhelmed the system. The group solved the project by having a volunteer click through and refresh the list every 45 seconds. 

This was a failure in timing – the project was started exactly two weeks before the election, not enough time to test and refine the system. Although it eventually got the results in, the group had promised they would have definitive results within 30 minutes of the closing of the polls – even by midnight, the group hadn’t released the results, although other news organizations were already reporting that the vote for independence passed. Although the group found a work-around, the project didn’t work as initially planned.

Since then and learning from the early failures in SMS election observaton, Ian's former organization has greatly improved election monitoring with mobile technology such as in Ghana, for example.  As someone in the audience noted durong Ian's presentation: "It's called 'learning.'"

Final Thoughts

Thanks to everyone who came out to the event.  FAILfaire is a completely open-source concept and all collateral on our FAILfaire site is licensed under Creative Commons license, including the logo, name, and content. Feel free to start your own FAILfaire in your city and your field!  We think that openly sharing mistakes is a great way to prevent future failures, and we would love to see more FAILfaires.

Photo by Prabhas Pokharel

FAILfaire: No #FAIL but a Huge Success data sheet 4079 Views
Countries: United States

Failfaire in Boston in October?

I consult for a large healthcare nonprofit interested in having a FailFaire session in October involving health care IT.  We agree there is a valuable opportunity to learn lessons from disappointing results.

We already have a venue arranged, a meeting in the process of being organized, and a crowd coming.  Can someone put us in touch with reputable people whose accounts can be verified and whose projects involved healthcare IT?  If the accounts check out, we may be able to provide a quite-useful forum for lessons learned.

Healthcare IT Fails

Mike - I would suggest that you out out a very public call for failures to your community and contacts, and then also personally invite some projects that you think might have failed. We would not fingerpoint anyone :)  


Someone should launch a blog dedicated to this subject alone.  I've certainly got a few to contribute!

There is a blog :)

It's at  We would love a post or two from you!  Also - we are in the final stages of setting up FailFaire DC for end of July - just figuring the dates and location (in partnership with the WorldBank).  Stay tuned - and if you are in the US, maybe you can come :)

Love the idea of Failfaire.

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