Meet The Civic Hacker Who's Making Congress More Accountable

Apr 11 2014, 5:32pm CDT | by

Meet The Civic Hacker Who's Making Congress More Accountable
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

“You don’t get many tech people in politics,” says Ted Henderson, a 29-year-old self-confessed ‘nerd through and through’ who’s been programming since kindergarten. The ex-staffer started ‘hacking’ Congress in 2013, reverse-engineering a radio signal which alerts congressmen that it’s time to vote in the House. He built out an app around it, Capitol Bells, which became a popular go-to for congress members and their staffers, giving them a quick and easy snapshot of what bill was being voted on when and where without having to be glued to CSPAN 24/7.

Now he’s gone a step further, creating a platform allowing the public to voice their opinions on bills and see how they compare to their congressman. You can review the bills within the app that Congress are voting on and upvote and downvote them, like on reddit, instantly creating an anonymous, visible record of your position. You can also tap the bill number or title to follow the hashtag on the bill to a conversation about it on Twitter.

Henderson hopes the app will bring voters back into a decision-making process he feels has squeezed them low on the priority list. When congressmen vote they hear from their colleagues, lobbyists (who were probably also at one time colleagues), party leadership and trade and advocacy groups, he says.

“There are a lot of broken incentives,” says Henderson. “The last people who really factor into decision making are the constituents because they’re the farthest away.”

This disconnect between constituents and the politicians that represent them is starkest at election time, says Henderson. “I think that’s one of the hardest things when you go and vote – other than saying this guy’s a Democrat, I’m a Democrat, this guy’s a Republican I’m a Republican, you really have no idea what they’ve been doing for you, unless you remember one big thing or one big scandal.”

“You have no idea what the record was, you have no idea how well he represented you which is the job that he’s been hired for, we’re electing them to be representatives,” says Henderson.

Henderson’s vision is utilizing a data layer which works both ways – allowing people to discuss and question what a bill means to them while at the same time giving congressmen and advocacy groups clear messages on their constituents.

“When we’re talking about voters it’s good to know how many people there are, where they’re from, what it is that engages them – is it death panels that got them riled up? Was it preexisting conditions?” Henderson is building a platform he hopes will give a clear quantitative answer.

“Polls are useful but I also want to have a system of tickers of bills in a way,” says Henderson. “So it’s like, here’s the way this bill is trending across the country. Here are the messages that people are listening to, here’s how candidates are tracking, here’s how members of congress are tracking. This is how well a member of congress is performing, here’s how well the bill is performing.”

Henderson expects adding a ‘data layer to democracy’ will be a means of generating profit. So far it’s just him and a part time programmer who works remotely. The 29 year old raised a seed round of $30,000 and now he says he’s looking for around half a million to scale up operations and hire more programmers.

“That kind of data is whether you’re a campaign or advocacy group is something that could be useful to you and campaigns in the US are a multibillion dollar industry.”

Henderson has a vision for Capitol Bells as the main online political gateway. It would have been particularly useful, he says, after the Sandy Hook shooting when no one knew where to direct their concerns aside from writing letters to their Congressman. “This is where people weigh in on whether people buying guns should get background checks,or figure out who you should be voting for,” says Henderson.

“There’s no standardized data for campaigns in the US. It’s all proprietary tools, proprietary data sets and it’s all kind of lousy,” he laughs. “It’s time for the nerds to come to DC.”

Crucially the enterprise adds accountability. With Capitol Bells a member of Congress would have to “explain what he wants to do first and get approval to do it rather than get approval and explain afterwards,” says Henderson./>/>

 
 

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