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New App Puts Political Engagement in Your Pocket

The new iCitizen mobile app combines live news feeds, polling and legislation tracking in an attempt to be an all-in-one platform for political engagement.

A caveat to American democracy, subtly ensconced in its collaborative ideals, is the constant demand for an educated voting public: people who know issues, people who then decide issues, with the result — ideally — being a fair decision-making process performed en masse. This need for an informed public has always been a lofty prerequisite, especially when pitted against the roar of today’s campaign pageantry, political spin and those raucous things we like to call our daily lives.

However, now there may be an app for that. Recently, a new app targeted at political education and citizen engagement has taken to the smartphone. Carrying the moniker of iCitizen, this free iPhone and soon-to-be Android app, intends to be the bridge between the public, incoming legislation and both locally and nationally elected officials. Its host of features include live polling, issue-specific news feeds, legislation tracking and representative ratings — yes, it’s now possible to rate a politician on a one-to-five star scale, much as you would a local sandwich shop.

Rod Massey, iCitizen’s CEO (and former CIO of Palo Alto, Calif., and Clark County, Nev.), said the idea came from a round of channel-flipping performed by iCitizen Chairman Duncan Dashiff, also an investment banker. In 2011, Duncan was thumbing back and forth through news channels scanning polls, when he noticed an irregularity. One poll had results gravitating toward one side, and on a different channel, another poll gravitated to the other.

“His whole epiphany moment was, ‘If I can't figure out what the American people want, then how can our politicians and how can our elected officials figure out what Americans really want,’” Massey said.

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The question led to entrepreneurial action, a design workshop for what is now iCitizen. Massey said the meeting pulled together a mix of politicos, former politicos, IT aficionados and startup entrepreneurs. The byproduct was a multifaceted app that's now backed by a 15-member advisory board with members from both the private and public sectors and a management team that coordinates content and development efforts.

“We're trying to lower the opportunity cost to be engaged with government and with politics,” Massey said. “We all lead very busy lives today. We have families, we have work responsibilities, we have professional responsibilities and we want to give citizens a quick and easy way to become educated on issues they care about.”

To accomplish this, Massey said, the app had to do many things in a user-friendly way. This meant it had to offer research tools, daily breaking news reports and provide a platform for political engagement. 

On the political education front, this translates into 18 different political topics, including an overview, a timeline of notable events, current state and national legislation, and daily news feeds from multiple publications (essentially a topic-based RSS feed).

When it comes to political action and engagement, iCitizen prompts participation through live anonymous polling, the ability to oppose or support legislation, representative contact information and direct links to elected officials' social media accounts.

Massey said the app’s live and location-based polls will be one of its major draws for both the electorate and elected officials seeking to gauge constituents. A quick skim of the app’s red-white-and-blue interface show polls on everything from financial to social issues.

As of this writing, the app’s same-sex marriage poll shows 61 percent support for gay marriage from 3,348 participants. On the issue of immigration, the app reports 55 percent of 382 participants support a path to citizenship for undocumented residents. And on the issue of gun control, 58 percent of 3,119 participants oppose increased restrictions on firearms sales.

For the skeptic, who might question if users in a larger state are skewing national results, the app also offers the ability to break poll statistics out state by state. Numerical vote tallies and maps of supporting and opposing states are also available.

"What we want to do is give citizens a voice every day,” Massey said, by using the app to package information in an unbiased way while prompting citizen action that isn’t based on the average two- to four-year cycle of state and federal elections.

To meet that aspiration, Massey said iCitizen’s ultimate goal is to become nationally ubiquitous, with large numbers of users engaging with the app on a daily basis. On the other end, politicians can use the polls to better represent their constituents.

In December, an app update will allow users to share content to their social media accounts. Further down the road, iCitizen will be launching a tablet dashboard designed specifically for elected officials to see constituent polls and interaction on various topics and legislation.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.