Computing Profession

Hacking the Hill

The Capitol in Washington, D.C., seat of the U.S. Congress.
A number of organizations are trying to utilize technology to improve the efficiency of government.

The last two U.S. presidential elections demonstrated that technology can be a powerful force in a race for office. With that in mind, a number of organizations have turned to what may be an even greater challenge: using technology to improve the efficiency of government itself.

"There are lots of Congressional offices stuck in 1997, and the result is that work often gets done not at all or very slowly," says Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, an organization whose website describes it as "dedicated to developing and deploying technologies that support every citizen’s ability to participate in their government, and hold it accountable." "There’s a hunger on the inside for better ideas," says Kraft.

In an effort to meet that demand, the OpenGov Foundation recently co-hosted #Hack4Congress, a government-focused hackathon at Harvard University. The event was not the first of its kind; the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation (which "advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all," according to its website) co-sponsored an election-focused hackathon in 2012, and the conservative-libertarian group Lincoln Labs ("where liberty and technology meet") has put together a number of civics-themed competitions in the past few years. #Hack4Congress, however, was uniquely focused on addressing government inefficiency.

Participants had to choose one of five challenges, including improving the lawmaking process and facilitating cross-partisan dialogue. The organizers also tried to pair technology experts with academics and government insiders, matching people who understood the problems on Capitol Hill with those who had the technological backgrounds to devise legitimate solutions. The winning team, HillHack, proposed a technology that would facilitate face-to-face meetings between members of Congress and their constituents. Later this year, they will join the winners of two more planned #Hack4Congress competitions to present their ideas in Washington, D.C. "The goal is to show products to Congress that they could use," says Kraft.

One of the downsides with these caffeine-fueled competitions is that the proposed technologies often fail to materialize, but startup Phone2Action is proof that the opposite can be true. CEO Jeb Ory says he and his co-founders built an early prototype of their core technology at a hackathon in Las Vegas. Phone2Action allows constituents to communicate easily with their elected officials via smartphones, social media, and traditional computers. The company’s software also helps non-profits and governments connect with people who could benefit from services such as scholarship programs via text messaging and other non-traditional means.

Ory and his colleagues also realized early on that they needed more than a noble calling to endure, so they also designed their tools to be effective for businesses, trade associations, advocacy groups, and others. "One of the challenges with civic technology is that people don’t always think through the business model," he says. "The companies that stay around are the ones that figure out how they can turn what they do into a business. If you’re not going to be around next month, you’re not going to be helping anyone."

A group of Harvard undergraduates recently launched a startup, Quorum, with that lesson in mind. The technology, which is available through a subscription, did not actually spring out of a hackathon; instead, it originated in another kind of incubator for ideas: the college dorm room. In late 2013, Alex Wirth was telling his roommate, Jonathan Marks, about the frustrations of his summer working on Capitol Hill, and how he had to visit 60 different offices before finding someone from an opposing party who would sponsor a particular bill. Marks saw this as a computer science problem; "I thought we should be able to go through this data and figure out who knows who, who cares about different issue areas, and things like that," he recalls.

For more than a year, Marks, Wirth, and their growing team have been building software that scours publicly available data on members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, such as bills, votes, co-sponsorships, press releases, floor statements, tweets, and more. The technology identifies hard-to-find links between officials, the issues that concern them, and their home districts. With Quorum, Wirth could have found a potential sponsor for a bill with the click of a button.

Quorum launched earlier this year and has already signed several clients. Kraft points out that a new technological solution does not necessarily need to evolve into a company to have an impact. An event like #Hack4Congress can be a success simply by drawing more attention to the problems on Capitol Hill.

"We got these problems out there," Kraft says, "and these teams put forth ideas that are way better than anything Congress has to offer already."

Gregory Mone is a Boston, MA-based writer and the author of the novel Dangerous Waters.

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