As I write this, the very-broken US Congress is playing chicken with the Federal budget, using Obamacare and the debt ceiling as bait. Every day, it becomes more apparent that our leaders would rather jab each other in the eye with a sharp stick than work together. It’s ridiculous, disheartening, and, most of all, disappointing.
With that said, there is a silver lining to the incredible dysfunction of our government that gets worse every year. Even though DC is a “political” town, people here are sick of “government as usual,” too — and they’re setting out to change the way we interact with our government and understand what the hell is actually going on.
One of the biggest players in this space, Votizen, was acquired by Causes earlier this year, which proves that we the people are hungry for change — change that we can affect ourselves. Though Votizen is probably the best known of the bunch, there are a lot of smaller startups here in DC that are flying somewhat under the radar — at least for now.
Take Ruckus, a startup that is actually not new to the scene. Its pedigreed co-founders know politics — Ray Glendening is the son of former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and Nathan Daschle is the son of former US Senator Tom Daschle — and are using the power of social media to connect politically like-minded people. The goal is to empower citizens to share ideas and enable real change on issues they care about, whether it’s marijuana legalization or reforming the tax code.
As Glendening and Daschle learned, people from totally different political spectrums care about similar issues. Once political affiliations are stripped out of the equation, people are more than willing to work together on issues they have in common. Glendening explained, “When you look at politics from the perspective of different movements happening on different issues — marriage equality or education debt relief — you see progress happening outside of DC. We want to find those movements that are happening and help propel progress around the issues.”
Another startup that is tackling a big problem is LegCyte — and I’m particularly excited about what they’re doing. Like Glenending and Daschle, co-founder Aneet Makin has a background in politics. He worked on Capitol Hill and got really frustrated that he couldn’t do his job effectively.
“When Congress decides they’re going to do something, things move very quickly,” Makin said, “and most of the time, these are large, substantial bills. How do you get through a 100 page bill or a 1500 page bill in a timely fashion? If it was a new issue, I would read what the trade publications and the Wall Street Journal was saying, and I’d talk to colleagues — and that is not unique. Everyone does that. I thought it was ridiculous that you had people supposedly analyzing bills when the reality was there was no time to do that.”
Now he’s heading up a big data startup that makes legislation easier to understand. Their software aggregates the information in a bill, runs text analysis, and tells you in plain English what is in the bill. They also run analysis to identify if a member of Congress is slipping stuff into the bill, which I think is my favorite feature!
But they’re not done. Makin said they will be pushing into predictive analytics, so they can show you the likelihood that other members of Congress will support or oppose the language.
Then there’s the Sunlight Foundation, which is not technically a startup, but it does have a very strong startup culture. Sunlight is a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that wants to make government more transparent. They do this by aggregating and analyzing Federal government and state legislative data, which their team of journalists rely on to write stories about what’s really going on.
Those Big Data tools and programs are developed in the Sunlight Labs. Tom Lee, the director of the Labs, explained, “It’s a group of designers and developers who use technology to create tools that can help people understand what their government is doing and why and help them connect to it.”
For example, they develop a lot of APIs that put together the data they collect from government sources — sometimes through hand curation, believe it or not — and they’re freely available to anyone who wants to use them.
What I find of most interest is the history of the organization, which was founded 7 short years ago by Ellen Miller and Mike Klein who wanted to do something about the influence of money in politics. “They originally thought of it as a journalist prize,” said Lee,” but, as they spoke to journalists, they found out that the data and tools available weren’t sufficient for the task.” Like Mackin, they decided to solve a tremendous problem.
Now, if only someone would create a tool to make members of Congress be nice to each other, we’d be golden!