Final Project: So You Wanna Be A Founder? Get Into An Accelerator? Study STEM – by “Miles Grimshaw”

In case you aren’t hip and up to date with the booming tech scene, YCombinator and TechStars are the two best startup accelerator programs in the US. Together, since YCombinator’s first class in 2005 and TechStars’ in 2007, an accumulative 377 new tech companies have passed through their doors. These companies don’t just receive space, free food, and mentorship; earlier this year Yuri Milner, a Russian “Tycoon” whose already invested in Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify, announced that his fund, StartFund, and SV Angel would offer every new Y Combinator startup a $150,000 convertible note. TechStars has followed suit and in September announced that it raised a $24mm fund from the likes of Foundry Group, investors in MakerBot (see classmate Nick’s final project), and RRE Ventures, investors in companies like HowAboutWe and Betaworks, so that every new TechStar’s company receives a $100,000 convertible note upon acceptance into the program. This is tuppence though compared to the combined $759 million they have all raised over the past 6 years.

So you’re thinking about applying? Well you aren’t alone. You might have gotten into Yale but YCombinator and TechStars take exclusivity to a whole new level. Yale just accepted 15.7% of early applicants to the class of 2016. YCombinator though has an acceptance rate of around 3%. TechStars’s first NYC class had a shockingly low 1.1% acceptance rate. Now how about that for exclusivity!

A lot of people have compared TechStars and YCombinator based on startups’ fundraising and exits. A post on TechCrunch last weekend did exactly that and stirred up a heated debate about the respective merits of each program among devoted alumni and fans. Funding though is a metric by which to measure success, rather than an important factor for success.

Time and time again entrepreneurs and VCs say that the team is the most important factor for success. Five time serial entrepreneur turned VC David Skok says that the management team is of critical importance: “A players attract other A players. B players attract C players. Therefore the starting team should ideally be all A players.” Steve Blank, 8 time serial entrepreneur and author of the startup bible, “Four Steps to Epiphany,” says that “team composition matters as much or more than the product idea.” Why? Because “the best ideas in the hands of a B team is worse than a B idea in the hands of a world class team.”

So if YCombinator and TechStars are more exclusive than the Ivies, just who are these A player founders forming the “world class teams” of the future? To answer this we dug up Linkedin profiles for 254 out of the 377 total companies from the past 6 years and documented founder’s college and major. In the process we also have empirically helped answer a long-time question plaguing many aspiring entrepreneurs: can you really be a non-technical co-founder?

Takeaways:

  1. If you want to get into TechStars or YCombinator, and are a Freshman or Sophomore in college, you might want to jump of the cool-kid bandwagon and actually study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).
  2. There is definitely little such thing as a non-technical team.
  3. The accelerators might tout that they are more exclusive than Yale, Harvard, MIT, Stanford etc but those graduates make up a non-insignificant portion of startup founders the accelerators accept.
  4. Higher ed is under attack right now by a growing number of people who wonder if it is all worth it. When it comes to YCombinator and TechStars it just might be:
  • Of all the founder’s whose Linkedin profile we found only a handful explicitly said they were self-taught
  • 25% of co-founders attended the same college – your college network is a powerful community to tap into when you want to find that second A player to start a venture.

Here are more details of the breakdown:

 

 

From an investor’s perspective all of this looks like great news: these incubators take an overwhelming majority of true tech people, with higher ed backgrounds, and shower them for 3 months with top-notch mentorship and a wealth of resources that help drastically lower the chance of failure. Oh, and there are clear runaway success stories like Heroku, and AirBnB and DropBox are in the pipeline.

Investors have definitely taken note. In fact, so many have that the whole thing is turning into a feeding frenzy. The number of investors scrambling to participate in early stage rounds has ballooned. Each dot below is a specific company. On the x-axis is when they attended the accelerator, and on the y-axis is the total number of investors throughout the lifetime of the company. Despite being much younger companies, recent accelerator grads have on average more investors even though they will have had the opportunity to raise fewer rounds.

 

So if you haven’t already switched majors / started watching Stanford’s online CS courses while simultaneously filling out an application to both TechStars and YCombinator, here is one last fun fact: if accepted, there is a chance you could be both the next Steve Jobs and a TV docudrama superstar:

TechStars Bloomberg TV Trailer

If you want to see the dataset we put together click here.

By:

Miles Grimshaw (@milesgrimshaw)
Michael Anderson
Tate Harshbarger

Legal Questions in a Cloudy Future – by “Ric B”

We're all headed for the sky

 

Cloud computing is the future, and it may be here sooner than we think. This past June, Google rolled out the Chromebook, its cloud computing clients pre-installed with ChromeOS. The idea is simple: almost everything we can do on our PCs locally, we could also be doing on the internet; on someone else’s computer. Why not strip away all of the excess, and let our computers be small, sexy, and sleek while the heavy lifting is done on “the cloud”?

 

A Google Chromebook: "Nothing but the Web"
...and a whole host of legal uncertainty

We could start with the fact that well-acquainted internet doomsayer Jonathan Zittrain would blow a gasket over the loss of generativity, as outlined in Chapter X in his “The Future of the Internet”, where X stands for any chapter number in his book. The minute we start letting someone else tell us what we can and cannot do with our computers, we begin to stifle the very innovation that created the Internet as we know it a.k.a. the best thing evar. Is he right? Who knows. This topic has been in beaten to death this course anyway. There are other relevant issues at hand, such as privacy, and I’d like to examine some of the relevant laws and legal questions associated with cloud computing before we plunge headfirst into the future.

 

Privacy

This is the Big Issue. The 4th amendment protects us from “unreasonable searches and seizures”. If we recall from Katz v. United States, one component of what constitutes an unreasonable search is whether or not one has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Should I have a reasonable expectation of privacy with my data on the cloud because a Zoho spreadsheet functions just like the excel one on my personal hard drive, or because I’m hosting it on the internet can I not possibly expect privacy? Enter the Stored Communications Acts, part of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

 

The SCA protects users from warrentless invasions of privacy, or, at least it did in 1986. The SCA stems from a time before the cloud when server space was more expensive, and when all e-mails were downloaded off of the server and onto your hard drive. As such, the SCA  made a distinction between e-mails that were less than 180 days old, and e-mails older than this. An e-mail on the server for 180, it was thought, was thought to be abandoned, and someone could not reasonably expect privacy of their abandoned e-mails. Thus, the government can, under the SCA, freely demand anything off the cloud that older than 180 days. Makes sense 25 years later with cloud computer, when the cloud has replaced users local hard drives, and people use 3rd-party servers for longterm storage of their data, right? Didn’t think so. The good news is, this has been challenged legally, and at least one district court has called the SCA unconstitutional in Warshak v United States. The bad news is, the SCA isn’t the only relevant law at stake…

How the government can do whatever it wants

 

Enter the PATRIOT Act, a new government doctrine which says, in summary, that government can, with regards to getting information, basically do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of where the the information is stored. That means anything on any cloud is fair game for the government’s eyes. In fact, under the PATRIOT Act, somehow, the US government can get information off a server stored in Europe without a warrant or consent. Whoa. It’s already stopped one major defense firm in the UK, BAE, from adopting Microsoft’s Cloud 365 service, because they are afraid of the US government stealing state secrets off of the cloud, which is something that could happen under the PATRIOT act. Privacy being basically a notion of the past with this law, let’s move on to other legal issues.

 

Net Neutrality

The future of cloud computing is dependent on strong network neutrality laws that are not yet in place. If you are relying on the internet to provide functionality for you computer, and the internet becomes restricted, so does the functionality of your computer. For example, imagine that your ISP begins to put out a web productivity suite designed for use on the cloud. Should they choose to prioritize or filter data away from competitors on your Chromebook, not only does your ISP limit what you can do on the internet, they are now limiting the basic functionality of your computer. The idea that you are free to hack a device that you own to make it do whatever you want doesn’t really apply when the functionality of your product requires the ongoing participation of your ISP.

 

Jurisdiction

As we know, jurisdiction already makes things legally thorny on the internet. At any given time, you could be accessing data owned Australians hosted on Russian servers from your laptop in America, and it wouldn’t be uncommon. Right now, however, if an French website gets taken down for violating French laws, it might be upsetting to you if you like to visit that website. However, if your French cloud computing service, where you hold all of your data, gets taken down for violating French laws, it could mean the loss of all of your data. You may be bound by local laws with regards to what data you could be allowed to store on your cloud, effectively limiting what kind of data documents you can have. For instance, while in America the first amendment gives you every right to deny the Holocaust, you may not be able to store your papers saying so on cloud services in Germany. In fact, the a paper you had been writing, editing, and storing on a German cloud, could suddenly vanish, and you’d have no way of getting it back. Scary.

 

In summary…

The Internet is a complicated landscape legally. Cloud computing has many advantages, like making your data more portable, and allowing your computers to be more powerful. While Google would have you believe that using GoogleDocs is just like using Microsoft Word on your computer, and it may feel that way on the surface, legally the two are worlds apart.

 

...we really, really hope

 

In an interview two years ago, CEO Eric Schmidt was asked the question “People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?”. His response? “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Using cloud computing involves not only entering a complicated legal framework, but trusting your 3rd party cloud source, perhaps the way that Hoffa trusted Partin. For the time being, I don’t use GMail, and my programs, e-mail and data are on my personal hard drive. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Final Project: Stop SOPA at Yale – by “Mollie D”

    

 

       Our project was to plan and implement an advocacy and awareness campaign concerning the Stop Online Piracy Act. This piece of legislation, currently being debated in Congress, would place severe restrictions on Internet activities and free speech. The act also restricts Americans’ ability to obtain affordable prescription drugs from abroad. SOPA is the culmination of entertainment and pharmaceutical industry pressure on Washington to place stringent protections on intellectual property, and the resulting draconian measures threaten to undermine the fundamental principles of Internet freedom. The Internet has grown at such an astonishing rate because it has largely rejected harsh restrictions on user activity. SOPA violates the theoretical pillars necessary to the Internet’s functionality, and breaking the Internet in such a fashion would bear negative consequences for individuals and businesses that rely on the Internet’s facilitation of free information exchange.

       In formulating our project, we decided that a campaign aimed at students and tailored to their concerns would maximize the effectiveness of our efforts. We thus chose to use Internet and social media based methods of communication, and we concentrated our substantive content on issues most relevant to college students. We did not limit our coverage to these issues though, as we aimed to provide a breadth of information about the bill’s negative consequences. By using social media platforms, traditional media outlets, and two different blogging platforms, we were able to spread our message to many Yale students and provide valuable information about SOPA’s Internet-breaking policies to the campus. We hope the lasting impact of this campaign will not only be to facilitate continuing interest in SOPA’s progress, but also to engender a general sense of vigilance in the form of participatory democracy concerning free speech and Internet regulation that resonates well into the future.

Part 1: Launching a Campaign

       Our primary goal of this project was to spread awareness of SOPA and hopefully rally others around opposing it. In order to do this, we tried to appeal to many different groups by using a variety of platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WordPress). We also attempted to broaden our appeal by using satire and humor in addition to more pointed intellectual critique of the legislation. We tried to tap into the very things that SOPA would likely cut into: user-generated content, memes and places where you can share links. While we created a lot of our own content, we also tried to post relevant and interesting articles and sites that others had made. One particularly enjoyable and interesting story involved “The Megaupload Song” that received a takedown request, presumably automated, from some RIAA-related entity (Universal Music Group) because it featured many RIAA artists even though Megaupload (a major file-sharing site) owned all the rights to the video. If you’re curious, the (quite catchy) song can be found on Youtube, and there’s more information here. Also, if you’re into remixes, check out this link.

       A major challenge for our group in promoting the anti-SOPA movement was fighting the general Yale apathy and our generation’s apathy that comes with having people constantly inviting you to do things (spamming you). This challenge was exacerbated by finals period, and consequently, we weren’t able to get an Op-ed published in the YDN (as they stop publishing early in December). However, we were able to raise a good amount of awareness as many Yalies hadn’t even heard of SOPA prior to our outreach. Through explaining SOPA’s specific relevance to college students as well as posting some of the amazing articles and content available around the web, we were able to educate (and hopefully inspire) a lot of people.

       As of this writing, our Facebook page has 130 likes which is equivalent to about 3 percent of the Yale Undergraduate population.  While this number is fewer than we would have liked, we speculate that many people for political reasons and/or page like accumulation effects were reluctant to like our page. However, our Facebook page insights seem to indicate that many people still benefited from and engaged with our content. As we see below, our weekly total reach (the number of unique viewers who saw our content from 12/8/11 to 12/14/11) was 3,303 and peaked at 5,191 for the weak ending 12/12/11. Thus, a large percentage of Yale undergraduates likely read something we posted and learned more about SOPA.

 

       To complement our Facebook and WordPress, we created a Twitter account, @StopSopaYale, to complete our social media approach. The Twitter was useful in that it let us keep a small but interested group completely up to date on every #sopa happening. Additionally, the Twitter account was useful because it let us retweet other people’s views and comments on the SOPA debate. This allowed us to combine other people’s opinions with our own and give a lot of different viewpoints on the topic. The Twitter page was also an interesting foray into trending topics and extremely concise posts, a nice contrast to the more drawn out and in depth arguments of our WordPress blog.  Currently, we have 20 Twitter followers and we are on the list of one anti-SOPA advocate.

       In our opposition to SOPA we took both the pragmatic path into what specifically the SOPA legislation said and would do immediately (and why their is concern about intellectual property protection) as well as the somewhat hyperbolic path, wherein we demonstrated the absurdity of how broadly SOPA is written and speculated on the potential consequences that SOPA could have. In this way, we provided our audience both with a quick draw in (the two line memes and absurd scenarios depicted in videos) as well as further information if they were interested in understanding the issue on a deeper level.

Part 2: A Creative Approach

       In raising awareness within the Yale community about the flaws of SOPA, we aimed to create original content which would specifically appeal to Yale students, both in addressing issues relevant to our audience and by presenting this material in an entertaining form.  Thus, we created internet memes, videos, an op-ed for the Yale Daily News, and a blog.  Additionally, we wrote an anti-SOPA form letter for Yale students to send to their members of Congress which was tailored to reflect a Yale student’s perspective.  Finally, to make all of this content easier to access, we either linked the material to the Stop SOPA at Yale Facebook page or we created static HTML pages for the material with corresponding tabs to our Facebook page.

Internet Memes:

       The use of internet memes provided an effective and engaging way to point out the ridiculous elements of SOPA.  In generating our anti-SOPA memes, we drew from internet memes which were already popular and recognizable, such as the Lazy College Senior or Futurama Fry.  Thus, Yale students would be able to easily recognize the humor which we aimed to convey. Plus, internet memes can be easily shared and transformed.  Consequently, we hoped that our fans would not only share our anti-SOPA memes, but would also craft similar memes themselves.  Some topics which our memes addressed were the possible end to interactive websites such as Facebook and Wikipedia, the end to fair use online, and the halting of future innovative online start-ups.

Video Posts:

       Similar to the internet memes, the videos which we created aimed to point out insensible aspects of SOPA in a humorous way.  However, through videos we could portray these aspects in a more in-depth form to help our audience gain a better understanding of the problems created by SOPA.  For instance, the video entitled SOPA Courtroom Battle illustrates the extreme changes SOPA will make in criminalizing copyright infringement.

Form Letter:

       By creating an anti-SOPA form letter, we hoped to encourage students to be active participants in the Stop SOPA at Yale campaign, rather than just passive followers.  While creating awareness on campus about SOPA is important, it was equally important to us to inspire a response to the bill.  As mentioned above, we tailored the form letter to address the concerns of Yale students.  This form letter, with instructions on how to send it, was posted both on our Facebook page and our blog so that it could be easily accessed.

Op-Ed:

       As another form of outreach on campus, our group wrote an op-ed piece to be published in the Yale Daily News.  Unfortunately, it was too late in the semester for the op-ed to be published immediately, but it can currently be found on our blog and an updated version will be posted in the YDN early next semester.  Like our other creative content, the op-ed piece exemplifies many of the problems with SOPA and the article’s sarcastic, comical tone aims to keep our readers engaged and entertained.  Also, the op-ed piece directs our readers to visit our Facebook page, AmericanCensorship.org, and Wired for Change.

Blog:

       The Stop SOPA at Yale blog provides a forum for our group to express our opinions about SOPA extensively and provides a space for our followers to contribute their own viewpoints.  Similar to the op-ed, the blogs are written with the goal of being both informative and compelling.  Our blog posts touch on a variety of topics, ranging from the different camps of anti-SOPA supporters to the effect SOPA can have on healthcare.  In addition, three of our members held a live blog session to cover Congress’ markup debate of SOPA.  Through the blog, our group elevates our position in the anti-SOPA movement: not only do we provide a channel of information to Yale students, but we are also contributing to the online voices against SOPA.

Part 3: Becoming a Part of the Action

       One of the more interactive aspects that we integrated into Stop SOPA at Yale was our creation and operation of a live blog. After learning that there would be Congressional debate held to discuss the SOPA legislation on Thursday, December 15 (which just so happened to fall in the middle of our SOPA campaign), we realized it presented a great opportunity to add very direct and significant value to our campaign efforts. We would have been foolish not to somehow take advantage of the fortuitous timing of the most defining event to take place regarding SOPA to date. Sooo, we decided to conduct a continuous live blog during the House of Representatives’ Full Committee Markup. For the sake of clarification or if you are not really sure what a markup is, it is “The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.”

       Up to that point, the majority of our campaign’s content was based upon content published online, in the news, by political commentators, activists, etc. We had yet to really dig deep into the real diplomatic activity and reality of what was actually happening with SOPA on Capitol Hill, or among the politicians who will ultimately dictate the bill’s fate. We knew that by monitoring and providing commentary on the live debate IN CONGRESS, it would add a heightened level of authentic value to our campaign.

The very nature and benefits of maintaining a live blog carried unique advantages that fundamentally differed from the other aspects of our campaign (Facebook page, normal blog, memes, creative scenes, op-ed, etc)….

       Live blogging gave us a channel to portray not only our opinions about SOPA and why people should take a stand against it, but also the ability to present a discussion based on the statements made by representatives in Congress to support our previously published content. Furthermore, as proactive “Anti-SOPAs,” conducting this event forced us to seriously pay attention to what is ACTUALLY going on with SOPA in the political sphere. When participating in a public protest, it is very easy to get caught up in the overwhelming flood of public opinion online and in the media. Blogging live on the congressional hearing during which political figures delivered their positions helped us stay grounded.

       The main goal of our campaign was to engage Yale students in a compelling way. We believed that a live blog would be (relatively) more captivating (to the extent that a live blog really can be) than other forms of content. Our idea was that a live blog on the Congressional markup would attract more attention to the issues we were trying to convey to the student body. We also realized this would make the substance of the debate more accessible. Essentially, we sought to accomplish two campaign goals: 1) more exposure for our campaign, 2) heightened attention and knowledge to students about the bill itself.

       We believe we were able to bring the experience of the House debate in an appealing way to those who may not have followed it live, but wanted to have a taste of what went on. The live blog was an aspect of our campaign that probably linked closest with the “real-life” implications surrounding SOPA. The most fitting conclusion I could provide about this endeavor would be – POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AT ITS FINEST!

Part 4: A Rewarding Experience

       Ultimately, we deemed our advocacy campaign a success. As is discussed above, our data shows that our Facebook page reached a large number of individuals, both those inside and out of the Yale community.  We believe that we helped further the anti-SOPA cause and exposed the weak points of the legislation. It was especially exciting to be involved with the anti-SOPA activity at this particular stage, when the bill is one of its most hotly debated points. This allowed us to piggyback off of other anti-SOPA campaigns’ publicity and allowed us to run a live-blog of the bill’s mark-up in Congress.

       It was an extremely rewarding experience for us all, both in terms of educating others about the dangers of SOPA and learning ourselves about the controversial bill, as well as about other related debates regarding the freedom of the Internet. The project also allowed us to gather (or hone) many different skills using technology that we might have never been exposed to, including creating and running a blog (and live blog), creating memes and other internet videos, writing simple HTML, and using and linking Twitter, Facebook, and blog pages. The project was therefore a perfect culmination of our semester in Introduction to Law and Technology, reinforcing and combining new technological skills with knowledge about current Internet debates that in the future will allow us to be better informed and more active citizens of the Internet world.

Mollie DiBrell
Charles Gyer
Sam Helfaer
Nicholas Makarov
Zachary Tobolowsky
Will Kirkland

Final Project: Mental Health on the Go – by “Bryan B”

As part of my final project, I was interested in the way health care and health care related information is provided on smartphones. Because I am interested in mental health care, I looked at apps relating to mental health care in particular. Moreover, because Google’s Android system and Apple’s iPhone currently dominate the majority of the smartphone market, I compared the results of my project on both markets. One purpose of my research is to investigate how people access apps in pursuit of mental health services. To investigate this, I compared results for various search terms related to popular mental health concerns. These included general symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, as well as specific searches for ten of the most common mental disorders, such as major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and anorexia.

Once the search was initiated, I took inventory of several factors: total apps returned, total relevant apps returned, total apps that were free, and for the specific disorder searches, a count of how many apps were directly related to the disorders in question. The most important results of my project are here:

Graphical Results
Side by side comparison of results between the Android Market and the iPhone App Store. Average utility refers to the number of relevant apps compared to total apps for all searches.
Android Full Results
iPhone Full Results

First, the Android surpassed the iPhone in how many total apps were produced for each search term and in each search category. This reflects the fact that, for each search term, I found that the Android was generally much more responsive to general terms in producing associated applications, however, the iPhone was better at returning more relevant apps, as indicated by it’s higher utility value.

Though the Android was much more generally responsive to search terms, it appears as though the iPhone was much better at only returning relevant apps. It seems as though the Android may bloat the number of relevant apps presented to the individual conducting a search. This could frustrate users seeking help, which in turn may repel individuals seeking help from doing so on the Android platform. iPhone users, and in turn, developers, may appreciate the ease of use and lack of clutter provided by the App Store.

Apple's App Review Guidelines may have something to do with this. The Android Market currently has no equivalent.

Another important result to highlight is that the Android surpassed the iPhone in the availability of apps tailored to the alleviation of a specific disorder. In nearly every case, the Android returned more overall apps than the iPhone did. The case of GAD and Major Depression were most notable in that the iPhone failed to recognize any relevant results, while the Android proved mildly successful. Because the iPhone did respond to and produce results tailored specifically to “depression,” this may not reflect an availability issue, but rather an accessibility issue with the way the search engines return information.

Because there were significant differences between both platforms, and some clinicians acknowledge this to promote the use of one platform like the iPhone, there are several potential implications. A clinician I work with told me that the iPhone is the preferred platform, for him and for others, in releasing mobile mental health care services mostly because of the ease of use and accessibility of the iPhone. But Apple products are typically more expensive than Android equivalents, and this difference in population may further promote the divide between individuals who seek mental health care. Financial concerns are one of the obstacles to accessing mental health care. If the iPhone comes to dominate the use of mobile mental health care, then this could alienate individuals who seek access to mental health care on apps but for whom financial troubles prevent access to both the iPhone and professional mental health services. In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that the Android market provided more free apps. If developers move to the iPhone, accessibility for those who have an Android device may further decrease.

Though these apps may be useful, developers must be cognizant of demographics of iPhone and Android users

Moving forward, one thing that would be important to look at is issues of legitimacy of apps like these. In professional mental health care, government law and agencies, high barriers to entry into mental health care fields, and peer review processes help us determine who is a trusted clinician and what forms of therapy are valid. For example, Twitter provides an excellent example of this: Twitter allows users to mark their profiles as “Official” in order to prevent fraud or misattribution of information. Such a similar feature could likely be presented in the future for apps mental health apps, as they are a sensitive issue. For now, however, most likely most people will rely on proxy sources like official consumer reviews and news, such as from the New York Times, and suggestions from doctors or therapists on which applications to seek.

Check out our SOPA Live Blog – by “Nick M”

Hey Guys!
As part of our group project on creating awareness to stop the upcoming SOPA bill from passing, we just wanted to let you know that Charlie, Zach and Nick will be live-blogging the bill’s markup in Congress tomorrow. The session starts at 10:00 am, but we’ll get started at around 9:30, so check in early for insightful coverage and our witty banter.

The link to our blog is here.

How Wikipedia will save politics – by “Olga M”

As many ambitious young Yalies before me, I spent my summer working for a political organization in Washington DC. Jokes about the tech-cluelessness of politicians aside, I was amazed by the serious lack of reliable information on Capitol Hill. Congressmen got nearly all of their facts from lobbyists, either in direct conversations or in pseudo-objective policy papers written by those same interest groups. The voices of true experts and average citizens were completely drowned out in the cross-shouting of lobbyists and extremists.

That’s why I was so intrigued when my think tank started working on Progressive Map, a Wiki that is designed to provide Congressional staff with (left-leaning) reliable information on issues, organizations, and people. The project follows the trend of political Wikis, like conservapedia, liberapedia, and Rational Wiki, in creating collaborative information gathering projects dealing with political issues. Progressive Map differs in hoping that average citizens will be able to bypass lobbyists and the money-buying-access problem to tell their Congressmen the full truth about the people and policies they are dealing with.

Sounds like  a pipe dream, right?

On first glance, politics seems like the least likely field in which a Wiki format could work. For starters, the self-conscious norm for objectivity and consensus that make Wikipedia work are completely absent from politics. While Wikipedia relies on the basic notion of trusting your neighbor, politics encourages people to form adversarial groups that prove that their particular viewpoint is correct. If the average Wikipedia writer comes to engage in a common enterprise with other users, the average participant in politics just wants his policy to win, and consensus created on the Discussion page is not the way to do that.

Furthermore, the basic rules of Wikipedia are particularly hard to apply to politics. The no-original research policy is tricky in a field that deals primarily with people’s conjectures and expectations. For example, to say that the user thinks that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless would have to involve polling data specifying the demographic that believes in that argument, or else a link to a prominent commentator making that claim.

Meanwhile, the requirement of verifiability will inevitably run into disputes over credibility and representation. For example, is it appropriate to say that Republicans question the existence of global warming just because conservative Christian fundamentalists don’t believe in it? Political groups are by nature heterogeneous, and it is very hard (and potentially very anger-provoking) to generalize about their views.

Finally, the neutral point of view standard would require hard choices about what due and undue weight, as many very prominent political groups (e.g. LGBT groups) have small numbers of clear members and a much wider undefined support network.

Most damning, however, is the problem of editing by vested interests. Wikipedia works in part because few people care whether zucchini is a fruit or a vegetable, but questions of politics have lives and livelihoods at stake. The incentive to try to cheat the system is thus incredibly great.

Already, instances of interference abound in Wikipedia. Marty Meehan raised public outcry when he edited his own entry to delete a reference to a campaign promise, and staffers for many Congressmen admit to doing the same. The entry for President Obama had to be blocked from further editing, after too many birthers edited the page to question Obama’s birth certificate and sparked editing wars . Meanwhile, some blogs claim that there is already a conservative slant to Wikipedia because right-wing advocates are more willing to devote time to promoting causes.

These problems are not exceptions. A political Wiki would have to deal with more than just bored teenagers; it would have to face people who bomb abortion clinics, donate millions of dollars, and spend countless hours demonstrating for the sake of getting their viewpoint out there.

And yet for all of the obvious challenges, there is a glimmer of possibility that enough individuals who care about accountability and bipartisanship will join in on the project and make it work. The requirement for some final result may create a new culture in which users agree to represent others’ views fairly if they get the same treatment. Groups wishing to push their views will simply add a sentence that a particular person believes and advocates for a particular policy, while leaving the debate over the correctness of the beliefs to other spheres. Given how many voters seem disgusted with partisanship, the Wiki should have plenty of users who have a desire to preserve neutrality.

So how could we make Progressive Map work?

Wikipedia’s current format is clearly too trusting and open to prevent sabotage. An alternative could come from a system like Slashdot’s, which uses carefully chosen moderators among logged in and regular long-term users. They would be chosen, and would enforce, a system of Karma, in which comments are ranked from “Most Fair” to “Disruptively Biased.” Additionally, users could rate other users as “Disruptive,” alerting the moderators that a user is abusing the openness of the system. After a user makes a maximum number of disruptive changes, he or she would be blocked from the website.

Progressive Map has the chance to work, but it requires rules and sufficient participation to succeed.