A group of students at Stanford University have built a civic engagement platform aimed at fixing one of the biggest problems in American politics: the inability for constituents to feel meaningfully heard by their elected officials.
Dubbed Pulse, the platform went live as a pilot program two weeks ago with the campaign of U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. Undergraduate students at Stanford are building Pulse in their off-time, with input from faculty but no formal university support.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, voters have sought to make their opinions heard within the political process in unprecedented numbers, inundating lawmakers’ social media feeds, phone lines and offices with communications. As a result, work has sprung up to help foster more satisfying engagement.
Many of these programs have essentially acted as a conduit for voters to call, email or Tweet at their reps. Pulse is a bit more comprehensive, its functionality more logistically minded.
One key difference between Pulse and similar platforms is that it has a public-facing component that makes it easier for voters to voice their opinions, as well as an internal dashboard that those who work in the offices of elected officials can use to organize, sort and easily decipher constituent feedback. There is also a component that requires verifying that one is a registered voter within the district of the elected official they are contacting, said Drake Hougo, CEO and team lead for the Pulse project.
Another component of the platform involves helping users stay informed. Pulse is non-partisan, and the goal is to work with members of both parties, as well as incumbent and challenger candidates. With that in mind, the informational component seeks only to simplify and convey the nuances of complex legislation in practical language that all users can easily understand. Government websites are, inherently, often written in a way that makes casual browsing difficult.
Hougo said the team is also dabbling with adding peer-to-peer and peer-to-representative messaging functionality, envisioning a day when a user can say they support a bill and leave a comment about why on Pulse, subsequently receiving a note back from their elected official after they did or did not vote for the relevant bill. As with all of Pulse’s functionality, the goal of this is a more immediate feedback loop, one that leaves voters feeling like their opinions matter.
It is perhaps fitting that this platform is being built by a team of developers who are undergraduate students, or, as some might say, youngsters. Part of the reason Hougo and team are so motivated to find a way to improve the feedback in American politics is because they see how technology has facilitated more efficient communication in other ways for their generation. Since millennials are likely to soon become the largest voting bloc, he sees the need for technology to adapt as especially urgent.
The plan is to first launch Pulse at the federal level. Once its number of users is significant within the offices of senators and representatives, Hougo said the natural next step would be to tailor it to state and local government as well. Federal politics generally fosters a higher level of interest among the population, even if it doesn’t always affect their lives as directly. Still, the team anticipates federal legislation and elections as being its most useful hook.
So far, the team is encouraged that there has been a high conversation rate for its pilot program. When voters in Rep. Swalwell's district learn about it, they have so far been quite receptive. They’ve come to the site, registered and started expressing their opinions on bills. This, of course, is encouraging for the young developers.
“We’ve seen a positive response so far,” Hougo said. “We’re looking forward to building on it as the elections get closer in November.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.