A startup trying to help facilitate more direct engagement between constituents and legislators has raised $865,000 from a pool of angel investors.
The company, ePluribus, is a venture from two brothers who started out with an idea while studying at Stanford University — since then, one has graduated and the other is taking a break to focus on the startup. Their idea, in a nutshell, was to create tools to verify the identity of constituents and then use social media and other tools to funnel their feedback on specific issues to the people who represent them.
To start off with, the McCarty brothers — Liam and Aidan — are building an extension for the Google Chrome Web browser that will send Facebook posts to legislators at the federal, state and local levels. Basically, as a person posts on Facebook, they will have the option to send that post to somebody who represents them.
The identity verification component is, for now, limited to ensuring that users don’t create multiple accounts. That’s a feature built into the fundamentals of Chrome extensions.
In the future, the brothers want to examine other ways of more effectively proving that constituents are who they say they are, and that they live in the jurisdiction of the representatives they’re contacting.
That’s a potentially valuable thing to do for government work in general, at least when it comes to citizen feedback, because identity verification can help ensure that elected officials and public servants are listening to the people who they represent. Or, in some cases, it could help identify trends in who is on which sides of an issue.
When it comes to politics, identity verification is important because it ties into how legislators might vote on issues. Representatives who receive lots of feedback from their constituents can, in fact, change their minds on certain issues. But in the age of the Internet, it’s easy to pretend that a person lives somewhere they don’t.
“There’s no … check that these are real people sending these messages,” said Liam McCarty. “There’s a lot of bots, there’s a lot of spam.”
The extension will allow users to decide how much information about themselves they want to send to their representatives — including, if they wish, nothing. But they’ll be encouraging users to tell representatives who they are, since they believe that will give their messages more weight.
Concurrently, they won’t store the identity information in the browser and they aren’t going to be sharing that identity information with Facebook. Facebook will only get the message that the users were writing on the social media platform.
The company is actually not the only startup coming from Stanford University students seeking to create a better way for constituents to contact legislators. Another business, Pulse, appears to be working more closely with legislative offices.
Technologically, the company is taking a top-layer approach. That is, they aren’t integrating directly with legislative offices’ customer relationship management software, or event their email. Rather, they are building a tool that will send information to CRM and email systems.
The bottom line is that legislative offices will start getting constituent feedback from people using ePluribus without having to do anything — indeed, they’ll be getting feedback even if they didn’t know the tool exists.
“We want every American to be able to use this immediately,” Aidan McCarty said.
That’s overstating things a bit, since Pew Research Center has found that about one-third of Americans — especially those older than 50 — do not use Facebook.
Still, the concept of hooking up a social media giant like Facebook directly to the constituent feedback-gathering mechanisms in legislative offices represents a big shift from the status quo in those offices. That’s because those systems rely on citizens taking the initiative to look up who their representatives are, gather their contact information and take the time to call, email or write those offices.
EPluribus’ plan is to synthesize that process into something people do more often: Post on social media.
The company is, however, not going to start really pushing its product until after the midterm elections on Nov. 6. That’s because this election is poised to sweep out a fair amount of incumbent legislators at the federal level.
“We’re building tools to help people send messages to their representatives much more easily than ever before,” said Liam McCarty. “That’s hugely relevant when all the representatives change, so we think we’ll have a really solid product once all the representatives have changed and constituents have stuff they want to tell them.”
The seed round follows a crowdfunding round of $10,000 the brothers completed on Indiegogo, as well as $50,000 they raised from family members. They declined to name the investors, but stipulated that some were from their home state of Wisconsin and some were from Silicon Valley.