FailFaire: What We Learned About Tech FAILs From The Latest FailFaire

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Dec 16, 2011

FailFaire – where it's okay to admit the mistakes. MobileActive hosted another round of FailFaire, bringing together practitioners, developers, donors, and students involved in the use of technology for social change development to discuss what's usually swept under the rug – project failure. The event is an open space to discuss those projects that went wrong in our field fostering a sense of learning from mistakes and knowledge sharing. The latest FailFaire in New York brought together eight practitioners to present their failed projects and what they learned along the way.  Take a look at this FastCompany article about the NYC FailFaire for some background. 

So, here we bring you...

The Top Ten Ways to Fail in Tech For Social Change!

1. The project wasn't right for the organization (or the organization was not ready for the project):  How does a tech-for-social-change project fit in with an organization's structure and goals? The UNICEF Innovation Team started off our FailFaire night by discussing a project that the team originally tried to place in UNICEF's Water, Health and Sanitation Department only to later learn that it worked better as a post-disaster recovery device since it had little to do with the day-to-day work of the Water, Health and Sanitation Department. Understanding where a project fits in with your organization, who the key stakeholders are, and the target deployment area can help decide if a mobile or ICT tool makes sense for the goals of the organization.

2. Tech in search of a problem: Is the introduction of technology in a project actually solving a problem? Ask end users how the project will work in their day-to-day lives and if it is necessary and needed. Although technology is often a "sexy" option, a low-tech solution may be a better choice.

3. Must-be-invented-here syndrome (aka not taking advantage of existing projects and tools:) Many organizations spend considerable time and resources developing tech in-house that already exists. Since many organization's core competency is not technology per se, many of these projects shave time and money overruns or fail outright. A case in point: Bryan Nunez of Witness spoke about building The Hub, a human rights-focused social media and video site; the organization later realized that leveraging existing tools like YouTube and FaceBook might be better strategically and save the organization considerable time and money.  

4. Know thy End-Users! Allison Stone of MoTeCh discussed the failures in a maternal health and data collection project that ran into problems with both the community health workers tasked to enter patient data, and the women patients who received alerts on their phones about pre- and ante-natal visits. The conceptions and available data about mobile usage of women in Ghana didn't reflect the reality on the ground. Many women were not comfortable replying to text messages or had only limited access to a phone or electricity to charge a phone. Likewise, community health workers found the project added to their workload rather than saving time.  

A key theme throughout FailFaire was the importance of working closely with end users throughout the design and development so that projects reflect their needs, address their points of pain, and the reality of their technology use. 

5. Trying to please donors rather than beneficiaries (and chasing small pots of money): A common theme heard throughout FailFaire was difficulty of retaining adequate funding all the while trying to build scalable and sustainable projects. Mobile tech in particular is sexy for donors right now but not particularly strategic or knowledgeable about appropriate use of mobile tech to address specific issues and may push organizations into tech projects when less tech would be actually better.  Presenters advised being careful and choosy while seeking funding, and against chasing after lots of small grants and prizes. 

Several donors in the room also suggested a 'Failfaire' for foundations and donors - an idea that we wholeheartedly endorse. 

6. Forgetting People (or - where is the human dimension?)  A number of speakers noted that technology doesn't change basic human behavior and motiviation. Stephen Hamill of the World Lung Foundation discussed his organization's FaceBook campaign that allowed user-generated pictures of suffering from the effects of tobacco use; despite the buzz around the project, people ultimately didn't want to post unattractive or disturbing photos of themselves or their friends and family on their social media profiles. 

7. Feature creep (or: Too many bells and whistle):  Less is more and agile, modular development is good. (Even though it was noted that mentioning the word "scrum" once does not make a project agile!) Speakers emphasized keeping features focused and simple and goal oriented rather than adding extraneous bells and whistles that take up time and money, and make development more difficult. Presenters also noted that tech projects run by committees are not a good idea and emphasized the importance of tight and competent project management for tech and tool development. 

8. Lack of a backup plan: What will you do if your project hits a roadblock? Henri Makembe spoke about using SMS election monitoring in Benin (full disclosure: was involved in the project). When the Internet went down during the election, many of the submitted SMS reports were lost due to FrontlineSMS' limitations to storing data for API calls, and so SMS that were sent in did not properly transmit to the online database and mapping tool we used. Makembe spoke about how we had not built in a sufficient contingency plan for the eventuality of the Internet failing during a critical time period, and that having a backup plan could have saved the data. Simulations and building in storage redundancy would have been smart to do! 

9. Not connecting with local needs: Ian Schuler (formerly of the National Democratic Institute) spoke about launching a crowd-sourced election reporting campaign during the 2007-2008 Kenyan elections that turned out to not be particularly popular. Dropping in technology without the involvement of a local community meant that no one responded. 
10. Not knowing when to say goodbye: 
 Several of the presenters spoke about how once it was clear that a project wasn't working, they continued to try to save the project even though it was taking up time and money. Understanding when a project has failed and letting it go is a hard-win skill that we often lack in this field. 

Thanks to our presenters who kept things light-hearted while discussing how projects can go off the rails: Chris Fabian of UNICEF, Ian Thorpe of the UNDG, Stephen Hamill of the World Lung Foundation, Bryan Nunez of Witness, Allison Stone of MoTeCh, Henri Makembe of the Beekeeper Group, Oscar Salazar of CitiVox, Ian Schuler of the US State Department (and formerly National Democratic Institute).

And - if this inspired you: FailFaire is entirely open source.  Please feel free to host your own! Check out our guide on How to Roll Your Own FailFaire for ideas and tips for a successful event fostering honest and open discussion about failure.

Image via Flickr user hans.gerwitz

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