Key Lessons from USATalk’s First Successful Project


des moines photo

Des Moines at night – Photo by IABoomerFlickr

In USATalk’s first real-world pilot project, likely member organizations Ballotpedia and Interactivity Foundation (IF) collaborated on a fall 2017 voter information initiative in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a resounding success.

For the Des Moines project, IF used brief video sessions to generate questions for school board candidates in the September 2017 election. Candidates’ responses were posted on Ballotpedia’s website. Ballotpedia, which employs more than 40 writers nationwide, reported that candidates’ response rate and responses were superior to any previously obtained.

We learned three key lessons from the Des Moines pilot. The first was that we should move quickly to replicate it on a larger scale (see picture, above). The second was that we should change our strategy from building an integrated online civic platform to knitting together the tools member organizations have already developed. (USATalk’s concept of the end-use “product”, meanwhile, remains largely unchanged: an online platform that would in one place incorporate information, discussion, “testing” and selection functions, as well as data gathering and analysis for continual refinement.) The third lesson was that there is a synergy between project and organizational scale: scaling up projects can help us expand our network—and vice versa.

We are taking all of three of these lessons very much to heart.

Ballotpedia, IF, and USATalk team member Sorin Adam Matei are now actively at work on a voter information project for the fall 2019 municipal elections in Chicago, patterned on the Des Moines experience. The Chicago project will represent involve scaling up the numbers of discussion participants and sessions by several orders of magnitude. But the goals are the same: giving voice to all citizens, especially those who aren’t always heard from, and ensuring that candidates responses to citizens’ considered views are easily accessible.

We have also redirected our efforts from building a platform from scratch to building an integrated online civic network.

And we have become more sensitive to the potential synergies between these as the scale of the Chicago project seems to be moving other civic organizations from an interest in USATalk’s work to a willingness to expand the network’s scale.

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