Powerline

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Powerline: The Next-Generation Platform for Civic Engagement

Hoboken, United StatesHoboken, United States
Year Founded:
2012
Organization type: 
hybrid
Project Stage:
Start-Up
Budget: 
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Powerline provides the missing infrastructure needed for civic engagement and democracy in the 21st century. Our app automatically connects individuals to elected leaders and civil society groups for prioritized, two-way interaction that enables leaders and citizens alike to break through the noise.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if every citizen was easily engaged in their democracy and connected to their leaders?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Current solutions do not prioritize the leader-constituent relationship nor do they work to systemically strengthen democracy in and beyond government. Too many focus on elections or on select pain points while siloed tools raise barriers to and between civic engagement, community, democracy, and leadership. Engaging communities and being engaged needs to be simpler for all. Purposeful, enabling technology must be accessible to more changemakers.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Powerline simplifies civic engagement, strengthens civil society organizations, and enables participatory democracy in any kind of community. It is designed specifically to empower leader-constituent relationships to break through the noise and make an impact. It is the simplest way to interact with the civic organizations and leaders in your life. Answer a poll, start/discuss a topic, start/sign a petition or micropetition (public or private), contact your elected leaders, or receive important alerts - all in one easy to use app. For leaders, increase your constituent engagement, build trust and deeper relationships, and simplify the actions you're asking your community to take. Powerline is a next-generation platform for civic engagement.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

With Powerline, NJ Governor Chris Christie could have polled all of his residents immediately after Hurricane Sandy to identify hardest-hit areas. Citizens could respond to the pop-up question with the tap of a finger and responses could be visualized against a map. A citizen could provide feedback on funding relief projects where, if popular enough, the statement is auto-sent to the community to speak on with as little an effort as a tweet. Public dashboards show results of top-down questions along with bottom-up grassroots feedback. A social enterprise could crowdfund citizen lobbying efforts or a news anchor could send a daily poll and share results with respondents' elected leaders. Participation is as simple as a tap and/or a comment.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

We have raised $19,000 in online donations from over 200 supporters, secured a dozen early pilot partners, and secured initial impact angel backing. We are currently in alpha testing and 100% of our pilot users now know who their elected leaders are. Over 90% agree that our app makes understanding/contacting leaders easy and painless. While it has only been deployed in small pilots and alpha tests, the expectation is that leaders and members will report stronger democracy and engagement. It will also enable millions of groups to politically organize their members easily or use it for internal purposes for stronger civil society and simple civic engagement and participation. We expect these other metrics to improve: trust and faith in government; congressional approval; frequency of citizens giving feedback to leaders; reduced money in politics; and, a stronger Civic Health Index.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Powerline could be the most important tool for democracy and civil society since the voting booth. Leaders of all kinds will be able to use it, so we will pursue "bottom-up" (e.g. schools, local CSOs) and "top-down" (e.g. umbrella orgs) strategies to build the userbase before going to elected leaders. The freemium and open design provides accessible technology infrastructure for any CSO to achieve its maximum impact potential. Eventually, all of global civil society will be able to utilize Powerline for leader-constituent interactions, feedback management, easy activism, and organizing.
Sustainability

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Powerline is based on a freemium revenue model. It's free (and ad-free) for citizens, and leaders are only charged for premium features they use (e.g fundraising). Also the media can pay for non-public advanced data analytics, and businesses can pay for commercial use. Political campaigns must pay a fee for advanced voter file integration. A proven market exists globally to easily sustain the technology's non-salary ~$25K annual operating costs.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Several dozen enterprises provide silo-ed civic functionality successfully in the marketplace, specializing in polling, community groups, petitions, alerts, discussions, fundraising, or constituent analytics. We expect this to continue and we hope to partner/integrate with some of them in the future (e.g. NationBuilder, Avaaz). However, we believe there is a clear need for a streamlined system for users and leaders that brings these functions into one accessible purposely-designed system and simplifies the citizen participation and activist processes into a more effective, engaging design.
Team

Founding Story

In April 2012, our founder was frustrated with US politics, so he came up with an idea for an app that just asked people political questions. He wondered why the smartphone couldn't be used to help strengthen democracy and connect everyday people directly to their leaders. Over several months, he conducted research with over 100 people of different political, business, and socioeconomic backgrounds to improve the kernel idea. The idea was democratized so leaders or citizens could ask questions of each other. Finally, inspired by his findings, he began assembling a team to build a powerful technology that could provide the missing infrastructure needed for civic engagement and democracy in the 21st century. Powerline was born!

Team

Our 9-member board includes experienced leaders, organizers, and technologists including a former White House advisor, a senior technology partner at Deloitte, and a former PAC leader. Technology strategist Jesse Chen is currently the only full-time employee with four contract developers under management. Full-time hires for technology, marketing, and sales will be made as growth allows by utilizing our vast network of qualified contacts.
About You
Organization:
American Civix Technologies, L3C
About You
First Name

Jesse

Last Name

Chen

LinkedIn URL
About Your Organization
Organization Name

American Civix Technologies, L3C

Organization Country

, NJ, Hoboken

Country where this project is creating social impact

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Impact
Full Impact Potential: What are the main spread strategies moving forward? (Please consider geographic spread, policy reform, and independent replication/adoption of the idea or other mechanisms.)

Powerline could be the most important tool for democracy and citizen participation since the voting booth. Leaders of all kinds will be able to use it, so we will pursue "bottom-up" (e.g. schools, local CSOs) and "top-down" (e.g. umbrella orgs) strategies to populate the system with users before going to elected leaders. Eventually, all of global civil society will be able to utilize Powerline anywhere in the world for leader-constituent communications, feedback management, easy activism, and political and non-political organizing, resulting in stronger democracy and accountable leadership.

Barriers: What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Since over 100 leaders and citizens alike have been involved in the design and early testing, access to funding for expensive requested feature improvements are the most likely barriers that we could experience at this point. We will pursue as many contests, grants, social impact angels, and other compatible funding and credibility sources as necessary to see our project to completion. Leader adoption may not occur as quickly as expected, but groups (and the media) can still benefit without leader participation, so we will focus on growing that market organically as well.

Sustainability
Partnerships: Tell us about your partnerships.

Currently, we are partnering with umbrella organizations and elected leaders for our beta program to get feedback from real leaders and real members of organizations. We want to get valuable input from these representative customers and users. Our vendor relationships all have important value considerations (e.g. open collaboration, social missions). In theory, each of our customers will be partners in our social mission to strengthen democracy.

Closing the Loop
How does your project primarily ensure that feedback delivers results?

Help funders, governments, and other organizations to listen to and act on feedback.

Please elaborate on your answer to the above question.

We view democratic participation and feedback management as closely related. We also view the leader-constituent relationship independent of the institution it's hosted in (i.e. funder-grantee, elected-citizen, leader-member, cause-supporter, etc are fairly similar to us). By balancing the right to privacy with the necessity of transparency, our public reports enable citizens to speak and be heard, but also be seen and counted in ways that are reportable, measurable, and valuable for leaders, the general public and the media to understand for accountability and follow up on for accuracy.

Languages: In what languages are you able to read and write fluently?

English.

2nd Round Questions
Thinking about your feedback loop; what information are you trying to get from whom, to whom, and to bring about what change?

Powerline is an open feedback management platform that can be used in many different ways. Our goal is get democratic participation feedback from citizens to their elected leaders and community leaders in any and every kind of community that we can, both in the United States and abroad. We want leaders to have the tools they need to collect feedback from their constituents and citizens to have the tools they need to speak up in meaningful and effective ways. By combining citizen feedback with their user profile demographics information, users don't need to enter all the other fields that so often lengthen the feedback provision process (but leaders still get all that beneficial information). The changes we're supporting depends on the application of the system - a school principal with parents, a CEO with workers, a club with members, a mayor with residents, etc. Regardless of its application, we hope leaders, institutions, and communities are more responsive and accountable to their members through greater democratic participation. We also hope citizens feel more empowered to take ownership and initiative in driving the change they want in their communities with technology purposely designed to balance leader-led change with leaderless movements, prioritize the leader-constituent relationship, and engage the traditionally-silent majority in the process.

What is the purpose of your feedback loop?

Other

If other, please specify

Can be used for any of above, but originally for democratic participation for understanding constituents and accountable leaders

What mediums or mechanisms do you use to collect feedback? (check all that apply)

Website, Other.

If other, please specify

Smartphone apps

Could you briefly describe the way you collect the feedback?

There are many ways feedback can be collected with Powerline. Users and leaders both register on Powerline. Elected leaders or group leaders (schools, unions, non-profits, boards, etc.) can initiate occasional multiple-choice polls, one-touch petitions, or discussions that are sent just to their specific constituents/members as a push notification (vibration/sound alert). With the mobile app (and soon website), users can respond to the alert with minimal effort. Users (citizens) can also initiate their own "micropetitions" in a community group that others can agree/disagree with. If the micropetition reaches a tipping point, it is boosted out to all members of the community to agree/disagree with. Reports show leaders, the public, and the media what constituents are saying (depending on whether the community is public like a town, or private like a union). In aggregate, user responses can be paired with user profile data (demographics, politics, interests, etc.) for further analysis. The primary delivery mechanism through the app is designed to simplify the citizen-user's participation and the feedback process. The leader control panels are designed to give leaders the tools they need, in one place, for feedback management. In the future, polls and petitions may be embedded in third-party websites for additional visibility and participation. We also plan on introducing a leader ratings and review system after we reach a critical mass.

What mechanisms are in place to protect people from retribution?

Other

If other, please specify

Different options exist depending on the group. Responses and posts can be made anonymously

What are the immediate benefits or incentives for people to provide feedback?

Other

If other, please specify

Visible feedback in public reports; points and other gamification elements planned for future

How do you ensure new and marginalized voices are heard?

Specific targeted outreach efforts

If other, please specify

Additionally, every group's members are automatically connected to elected leaders as well

What are the incentives for the intended recipient to act on the feedback?

Pressure through media outlets

If other, please specify
How does the feedback mechanism close the loop with those who provided feedback in the first place?

Reports on collected information

If other, please specify
How is feedback published/transparent?

On a website

If other, please specify

Also available in anonymous aggregate

Give two concrete examples of how feedback loops have brought a program or policy more in line with citizens’ desires.

Since our pilots have only recently started, there are two concrete examples of planned feedback loops which we would like to highlight that exist currently in the market in what we believe to be immature states. First are online petition platforms. The goal of the online petition is to gather support from fellow citizens on an issue and deliver that "public pressure" to an elected official and, sometimes, within a semi-private community (e.g. an apartment high-rise). There are a few problems with online petitions. First, leaders never know how many of the signatures are real constituents versus someone else's constituents. Second, petition signature signing is a multi-step process that requires the same meta-data each time (and becomes annoying over time). Third, the signatures are not always presented in naturally-organized, reportable way that encourages leadership accountability by the public and media. Finally, organizational signature collectors (including leaders themselves) rely on multi-step processes to get their own members to support issues. Powerline addresses these issues with push petitions and one-touch signing that enables user profiles to be automatically associated with signatures so that aggregate reports can show how many signatures are one leader's versus another. Powerline also introduces the additional concept of the micropetition which reduces the "campaign" nature of a traditional petition and helps sentiment feedback be collected and provided via a shorter, more organic process.

The other planned feedback loop that requires more maturity is the traditional polling system. A few problems exist here as well. First, anyone who participates in a poll is not giving feedback to their leaders; they're giving feedback to someone else who asked the question. In the same way that petition signatures aren't organized for leadership accountability, polling responses aren't usually sorted to encourage leadership accountability either (ever see X% of poll respondents were Governor Christie's vs Governor McAuliffe's?). Powerline helps address this problem at its source and includes more people in the process while still enabling statistical sample analysis. Second, polling lags the public conversation. In government situations, the nation (and to a lesser extent the media) are at the will of the polling companies to talk about the issues that are emerging. Powerline's "boosting" system helps popular micropetitions and some types of petitions get automatically sent to everyone in a community once a tipping point is reached. This helps not only engage the entire community (in public or private settings), but effectively allows the citizenry to create their own mass polls with enough support. Again, thanks to the reporting element, a boosted micropetition in the USA community, for example, would be presented to the general public by elected leader and/or geographical area, once again enabling greater leadership accountability.

If there was one thing you could change to increase the impact of your feedback loop, what would it be?

We're constantly trying to figure out ways to strengthen the feedback loops Powerline enables. With that said, the Powerline ecosystem was designed using systems and critical theory to simultaneously serve elected leaders, civil society organization leaders, citizens, the media, and communities of all kinds through an integrated infrastructure. In order to strengthen democracy and civil society, it is open and accessible, prioritizes leader-constituent relationships, and simplifies civic engagement. The most significant challenge we face is getting people signed up. Powerline is designed to serve both activists and concerned citizens simultaneously. For example, leader-driven content (like new polls, petitions, etc.) is received as a push notification alert (vibration/sound) by citizens with simple friction-less user experience design; this helps keep people engaged after they register even if they aren't activists constantly browsing around the app. Even if someone signed up primarily to interact with a membership group, they are still connected automatically to their elected leaders. However, it does not guarantee that people register on the platform in the first place. We are hoping that, due to the platform's appeal to leaders, that citizens will join upon receiving a request from some leader in their life. If we could change one thing to increase the impact of our feedback loop, it would be to increase Powerline's visibility to leaders and citizens. We know our system provides value - a few hundred citizens and dozens of elected leaders and civil society organizations know there's promise in what we're working on. We've got to get it developed to the appropriate level of maturity and then we need to get visibility. This visibility is the number one most important thing we can do to increase the impact of the Powerline feedback loops regardless of which communities use the system and how they use it.

What are your biggest challenges or barriers in “closing the feedback loop”?

Lack of incentives for people to provide feedback

If other, please specify
Are you aware of The Feedback Store?

No, but I would like to be on it

What are the main uses you can envision for the Feedback Store?

A missing answer choice was "Yes, I am aware but not on it". It's helpful for leaders/organizations and activists looking for feedback tools.

What is the one thing you would most like to see changed to improve the competition process?

More clarity on the connections with the sponsoring institutions and their networks and how that might help entrants beyond the grand prize winner. More clarity on general feedback loops vs specific feedback loops.

What are you doing to make sure that feedback providers know that they are empowered by the information they can give and that they know exactly what the information they are providing?

Helping them understand their privacy in-the-moment and what data is being shared beyond the tap / comment they are making. It is a work in progress as we are trying to make sure we don't discourage user participation as a result of any extra steps.

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