Improbable: YOU gave model Lily Cole £200k for her Impossible.com whimsy-site
Word does not mean what she thinks it means
What’s Impossible for? That’s an Impossible question to answer, we discovered
When we asked why Impossible.com had received funding, the Cabinet Office pointed us to Nesta. We asked to see the application for funding. Nesta says it will not make this public. Nesta is no longer subject to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests since the Coalition turned it into a charity. A spokesperson told us there was a blanket ban on disclosure, and there could be no exceptions. Back to the Cabinet Office, then.
In responses to questions submitted under the FoI Act, the Cabinet Office explained that Impossible.com “was awarded £50,000 through Round One of the Innovation in Giving Fund in August 2012 to support the initial development and refinement of the product.”
Then things got pretty weird. Improbably, Impossible received a further £150,000 in follow-on funding in March 2013, because it had “demonstrated Impact at Scale”. “Impact at Scale” was one of five criteria for follow-on funding. Impossible had been deemed to achieve this, even though it hadn’t yet launched.
Impossible, you say? It's certainly very implausible
In addition, the Cabinet Office explained:
Impossible were awarded the Follow-On Funding to work with existing online community groups and to look to integrate with the tools that these groups already used. They aimed to extend the reach of the Impossible brand and possible interaction by creating widgets and tools that work with existing community bulletin boards, or by allowing users to post their wishes regardless of location. This is in addition to the support Impossible will be developing for the main existing social networks. Impossible also planned to extend the Impossible brand and deepen integration with major social networks.
It is too early yet to fully evaluate the impact of Impossible. We are pleased the site is now live and is working to encourage giving in a variety of ways.”
This didn’t explain why Cole won funding for Impossible. And it raised further questions. Why were special tools required “allowing users to post their wishes regardless of location” when the recipient is a website on the World Wide Web? Who were the “existing community groups” who Impossible needed to integrate with? (Using special widgets). Why was funding needed for integration with social networks, over and above the OAuth credentials that many websites already use?
Further questions were submitted under FOI.
On the matter of the mysterious “community groups”, the Cabinet Office elaborated:
“Impossible stated they were looking to integrate with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This was so that users could link their Impossible profile to other existing social networks they used, in order to share the content created within Impossible to outside the platform.”
A Nesta spokesperson for the Innovation in Giving Fund told us that the organisation didn’t know the millionaire model was a recipient of funding in April 2013. This is hard to believe. Cole's project had already received widespread publicity by the time she applied: it was a very high-profile application. For example, it featured in WiReD's July 2012 edition: “Lily Cole's 'Impossible' network wants its users to help each other out” - and she described it that October at a WiReD conference.
Without seeing the funding application, which Nesta refuses to make public, we can't say.
We also asked several other questions. Why was second-stage funding for Impossible.com released as a reward for "achieving scale", when the site hadn't even launched. What is Nesta's definition of "scale"?
We asked Nesta to name the "existing online commuity groups" who it thought Impossible was working with.
A spokesperson replied:
"Impossible is already working with a number of existing online communities on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We know the team are working on a number of broader partnerships, however it is too early for discussion at this stage."
So it can't and won't name names.
We were also curious as to whether any of the "widgets and tools" to work with online community groups been developed.
Answer? "Impossible has already built social sharing functionality and tools into all iterations of the product, and plans to open its API in the future," a Nesta spokesperson added.
So that's a "No", then.
We were also curious if Nesta had made an impact assessment of Impossible.com yet - given that most wishes go unanswered, and the genuine engagement appears to be minimal.
"As part of the Innovation in Giving Fund contracting process,” said Nesta's spokesperson, “milestones for funding are set for all projects. Milestones include showing evidence for the development and progress of the venture, data analysis of how the platform is being used, user uptake and performance of local launches. The Innovation in Giving team regularly assess and monitors the progress, impact and development of all awardees."
If you're a millionaire, you literally can't fail
The Cole story raises several fascinating questions. It vividly illustrates the lack of accountability in government, with the state apparently set on autopilot. Perhaps the Conservatives were so wary of reputational issues as “the Nasty Party”, they were fearful of cutting discretionary funds. Nobody involved sees the slightest embarrassment with funding a well-connected millionaire celebrity to create a whimsical and unused web project. Nobody involved appears concerned that the functions weren’t already duplicated widely elsewhere, on other community websites.
It is also reasonable to ask if an unknown working class teenager in the North of England would receive the same red carpet - lacking the celebrity endorsement of a Jimmy Wales. And there may be many more practical and useful projects that struggle for funding, and whose people view the state's generosity to the supermodel wryly.
Cole has waxed lyrical about the site. In a typically incoherent editorial for the Guardian website last week she described the US launch. Cole has often described getting Impossible.com off the ground as a struggle - how she “set out on this seemingly impossible journey”. [our emphasis].
But when one examines both the Innovation in Giving Fund approval criteria and the criteria set by Nesta, it appears to be "impossible" for Lily Cole to "fail". She only needed to ask. ®