Feb 1 2014, 3:42pm CST | by Forbes
Did you know that members of Congress introduced more than 6,600 bills and resolutions in 2013 alone? Probably not, because only the most controversial make it to mainstream news, and the coverage tends to be so sensationalized that it becomes easy to tune out. And lets face it, everyone and their mother is feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the abundance of information being catapulted our way every day. Taking additional time to research various bills up for vote, and understand the cryptic language used to determine new policy proposal while our government continues to argue over their differences like children in a schoolyard, stagnating needed progress? It’s no wonder that The United States is suffering from decreased political engagement.
But what if there was a technology solution – a non-partisan platform providing you with a 360-degree view of every bill and resolution, organized by issue area to enable easy discovery, and aggregating personal letters from people just like you, as well as professional opinions from advocacy groups and trade associations, and using location-based data to show you what Congress is actually hearing from verified constituents? What if all you had to do was click, and you’d be taken to an online tool where you could write a letter to the appropriate lawmaker, be guaranteed delivery, and then see how your story is “appreciated” by other people interested in the same issue? Well, that reality is here, and it’s being made possible by a startup called POPVOX that’s translating grassroots ideas into action on Capitol Hill.
Its two founders – Rachna Choudhry and Marci Harris – met at a dinner in 2009, and soon discovered a shared passion for a problem that hit both close to home, albeit from different sides of the same coin. Choudhry came to the U.S. as a young child and was raised in Silicon Valley, her father active in the startup space. She studied Political Science at UCLA and earned a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University in 2000. She began working on political campaigns and then became a lobbyist, her personal frustration with how difficult it was for people to have their voices heard by lawmakers growing steadily over time – she observed a lot of noise, but very little signal making it through. The situation led to high “activist churn,” where passionate crusaders would fall away after failing to influence desired change.
When Harris met Choudhry she was working as a congressional staffer – having spent years in public service after receiving a law degree from American University, and then becoming deeply enmeshed in work pertaining to health reform. She agreed with Choudhry that the system was broken – their offices were regularly flooded by form letters and petitions, but there was no way to verify who these people were, or quantify collective sentiment to reveal where congressional districts landed on key issues. Neither Harris nor Choudhry had experience in technology, but they felt equally convinced it was the solution. They exchanged contact information, and began meeting regularly to discuss what features and functionality would need to be included in the minimum viable product.
They took their idea to Tim O’Reilly, a key supporter of the open source movement (and host of Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 summits and expos), and he became their first angel investor. After raising additional funds from family and friends, Choudhry and Harris quit their jobs, and in November of 2010 they released the first version of their platform. The first time they knew they were onto something big was when, in April of 2011, the site crashed due to a massive spike in traffic caused by a potential government shut down threatening continued compensation of military personnel. They resolved the issue, and went on to win the social media category at South by Southwest in 2011, were honored at the 2012 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, and were ranked #10 on Mashable’s Major Tech Contributions From Entrepreneurial Women in March of 2013. Since launch, over 350,000 people from every state and congressional district have used the site, and in 2013 POPVOX users shared their experiences and opinions on bills with Congress more than 900,000 times.
Okay, so at this point in the story you may be wondering, “How did they pull this off? The back-end logistics sound complicated, and expensive to build.” When questioned on this, Choudhry explains that it’s been key for them to bring developers on board who have experience in politics –understanding how things currently work, so they can create aligned solutions. The fact their lead designer knew nothing about the space ended up being a gift in disguise, as it allowed them to create a user experience that was intuitive to a mainstream audience. They’ve followed a “lean” methodology of constant iteration – guided by one of their advisor’s Janice Fraser, the founder and CEO of a company called LUXr that teaches tech entrepreneurs effective product development practices and principles.
Proprietary software scrapes Congress.gov so that once a new bill is posted there it’s automatically added to POPVOX, providing their users with a dynamic summary of up-to-date information. Choudhry is responsible for reaching out to respected voices working within the nonprofit and corporate sectors, and asking them to contribute their opinion of bills that relate to their area of expertise. Monetization occurs through a variety of white label tools, such as their “Write Congress” customizable widget, which can be pulled onto any website, providing an easy way for targeted audiences to take meaningful, measurable, action. They also offer a variety of custom analytics and data mining tools – think social media monitoring, but focused on social issues and legislation. And the key to their success is that every user who writes a personal letter to Congress is a verified constituent – providing their home address and allowing POPVOX’s software to identify their congressional district. Congressional staffers finally have data they need to make informed decisions.
Most of the POPVOX’s current users are those who have a strong desire to have their voices heard – either due to a generalized mistrust of government, or a passion for a social cause. Students are also using the site to conduct research, which is one of those surprise use-cases that often emerge and make perfect sense in hindsight. More than half of POPVOX users (56%) say that when they’re undecided on an issue, reading what other people wrote helped them decide whether to support or oppose it. And two-thirds (65%) said that they decided to support or oppose a bill after reading an organization’s position on POPVOX. That’s pretty convincing impact, but how do they plan to spark the interest of those who are currently disengaged?
“People who write letters to members of Congress can share them via social media,” says Choudhry, “so that helps to increase awareness, and puts the personal story before the issue which is helpful from an engagement standpoint.” And once users submit a letter, POPVOX’s recommendations engine surfaces other related bills à la Netflix or Amazon, encouraging them to further explore. Revenue growth will occur through increasing their nonprofit and association client list, and expanding into the private sector – connecting with foundations, and legal affairs and social responsibility departments that are looking to engage employees and customers with policy initiatives. Says Choudhry, “We’re going after a big problem of helping people engage with their lawmakers, and while we cannot promise that lawmakers will actually read each and every letter — there’s a lot of power in hundreds of thousands of verified constituents taking the time to share their own voice.”
Source: Forbes Business
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