Money Trail: The intersection of technology and activism

Last modified: 7/14/2015 7:42:31 PM
For some tech-minded activists, a few lines of code can replace a lifetime of digging to better engage and educate voters.

Twenty years ago, it would have been a monumental task to document and organize every representative’s stance on a handful of bills relating to a certain subject.

At reform.to, software developers have created an environment that centralizes information about politicians’ records on bills relating to the influence of money in politics – in a fraction of the time.

Gabriel Grant, 28, a developer walking with the N.H. Rebellion, maintains the site – and it’s just one of a multi-pronged effort to engage activists and inform voters.

Grant worked on a project for the 2014 election that helped volunteers get in touch with more than 3,700 voters about campaign finance reform in New Hampshire and get out the vote for Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Jim Rubens, who supports publicly funded elections. For the next election cycle, he’s hoping to expand that software to get voters who support the cause but don’t live in a relevant district engaged in critical races.

Jacob Turino is another developer who joined the walk for a day while traveling from his home in Berkley, Calif. He said he’s working with Mayday PAC to get online activists out working in the real world.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s the most effective method, how can we engage users on the internet in a way that keeps them happy, makes them want to keep participating and feeling like they’re making a difference,” he said.

Grant, a Toronto native, first got involved with N.H. Rebellion founder Lawrence Lessig’s organization Rootstrikers in San Francisco before branching out to work with a variety of Lessig’s projects.

Polical.org, designed to track candidates’ campaign stops and map them out, is another of Grant’s projects. The software will scan email blasts for phrases describing where and when events will take place to show voters where they can go to question candidates.

The pieces fit together to advance a common goal and inform other unrelated projects. Some people are outright opponents to campaign finance reform, but most have just avoided taking a stand, Grant said.

“All of this is about trying to force politicians to make a stand,” he said. “Our biggest opponent isn’t really anyone arguing against it. It’s just that people don’t talk about it.”

Reform.to, and a new version of the same concept Grant created at repswith.us, tracks only five bills because only a small amount of legislation has been proposed on the subject. But Grant said it can easily be updated as developments occur, and for new candidates without a voting record, they can pledge to back campaign finance legislation if elected – and know they’ve got the backing of the website’s supporters.

“It doesn’t replace traditional organizing and traditional sort of offline politics, but what it does is it gives us this huge lever where a couple people can use their body weight to move a massive rock that they never would have been able to if it hadn’t been for that piece of technology,” he said.

Danny Miller, a Ph.D candidate in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was involved with a project that used code to translate New Hampshire lobbying and contribution data – difficult to organize because it was stored in PDF files – into manageable data.

He said in the future, he hopes to see computers help model what makes for successful social movements.

“I do simulations of the universe on supercomputers,” he said. “I want to see that same thing done with social movements.”

Grant said all software developers want to create the “unicorn app” that brings activists together and help them accomplish their goals, but it’s more likely that will come as individual parts are perfected and brought together.

“We’re never going to sit down and build the unicorn app. We’re going to build pieces of it and it’s going to coalesce,” he said.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)




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