Next up in the #SensibleVibes series is an interview with one of the many admirable non-profit organizations hosted by Gathering of the Vibes. The non-profit village, nestled along the waterside near the Furthur bus, is a vital piece of the Vibes mosaic. With organizations ranging from Oxfam America to the Cell Motion BioBus, the array of organizations caters to all sorts of interests. Those politically-minded or wanting to become politically-minded and politically informed had quite a few options to choose from.
iCitizen presents a new and modern spin on political engagement. Utilizing the indispensability of smart phones in daily life in the US, iCitizen is a non-partisan organization with an app that delivers individualized news feeds on the issues you care most about and informs individuals about their representatives and their voting records. The app also allows app users to voice their opinions about their representatives and Congress by voting in polls on current legislation and by rating politicians in their district or state. It appears to be the wave of the future. With an app like this, communication to and about politicians becomes direct and easy, and being informed on issues of interest requires less work. The app already has approximately 150-160,000 people consistently using it to vote in the polls, read at the news articles, and it’s very new. By streamlining the process of political understanding, iCitizen hopes to increase: political participation, communication between citizens and representatives, political accountability, and community dialogue.
I met up with the Citizen Engagement Manager at iCitizen, Alex Schreiner, at the HeadCount and iCitizen joint tent near the ferris wheel Friday afternoon, where we chatted about the iCitizen app and how it works, their partnership with HeadCount, how they hope the app influences political participation, and where they see the app going in the future.
SR: When was iCitizen started and how did the partnership with HeadCount come about?
iCitizen: iCitizen’s been around for a little over a year. The app itself has been launched for about 6 months. HeadCount is an awesome organization that has registered over 300,000 people to vote since they started. We see that as very in line with our mission. They’re registering people to vote and we’re providing people who are engaged in the political process the next step and make it really easy for them, not just every four years when there’s a presidential or midterm election, on a day-to-day basis to keep their thumb on the political polls of the country and stay very easily in touch with what’s going on.
SR: What would you say the ultimate goal of the app is?
iCitizen: I would say the ultimate goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to be politically engaged. We call ourselves a civic engagement platform and a lot of people feel like politics is too big an animal to get involved with. They don’t understand what’s going on; they don’t know what legislation is passing or what that means for them personally, so what iCitizen does is give people a range of issues and they can pick the ones that are important to them and we call that their “political DNA.” So the issues you pick get condensed into a personalized timeline of events and all the federal and state legislation concerning those events, news articles pulled from all over the country about what’s going on with those on a national and a local level, and you can vote on polls concerning those issues as well.
SR: Over the months the app has been around, has iCitizen been collecting the data for any kind of report for Congress? Have members of Congress responded to it? What has been their reaction?
iCitizen: We’re non-partisan. We don’t have an agenda we’re trying to push, so we’ve had people on both sides of the aisle get on board with this who attended the launch party. We have Democrats and Republicans who have both said if we can get this off the ground, this could be a hugely transformative, useful tool for them. The idea with the data is that when you go through the app and you are looking at legislation, you can support or oppose it, you can vote in polls on certain issues; you can see your representatives (your two state Senators and House representative), you can rate them; you can see their campaign contributions and voting records; you can vote on bills that they’re working on right now and voice your opinion. They get all that information, so there’s a separate platform for the representatives.
SR: In terms of the content that’s on the app, how is the news selected? Have you had challenges trying to stay neutral?
iCitizen: As a non-partisan organization, we need to be careful about not leaning one way or the other, so we have about 10,000 news feeds that are coming into the app, and the news sources are pulled from all kind of major media outlets so there’s not just one source of news…. The news articles are collected from really diverse sources; we try to be non-biased by pulling from as many sources as possible.
SR: With apps like this and sort of campaigns like this, there is usually a call to action associated with it, because people tend to feel let down if there is no end action or end goal. What would you say that is for iCitizen? Is it rating Congressmen, engaging information? What is the action you hope people will take beyond informing themselves?
iCitizen: I think that the polls and voting on legislation are two of the most powerful things that the app offers. Until now, there really was no way to read the full text of a bill without it being editorialized. If I’m a representative for Connecticut, then I can look at the numbers and see that, for example, 20,000 constituents voted on this bill that I’m considering right now and they’ve spoked pretty clearly that they want me to go this way on it. That becomes an incredibly powerful tool for people to directly communicate with their representatives. Instead of having to worry about advocacy groups or going through lobbyists, you can personally contribute to this direct channel of communication.
SR: Is there any plan or goal to take this beyond voting in polls, like organizing community actions? I’ve met many people in our age bracket who aren’t really interested in participating and don’t feel that it can make a difference, because the political system itself doesn’t really work. I think most people are aware of the way policy is being influenced, but one of the only ways to feasibly change the system is by participating in it.
iCitizen: Exactly. We have developers working night and day basically to continue to make the app more and more functional to provide that heavy-hitting, big impact stuff that you’re talking about. We think that the future of engagement in politics is going to be largely driven by mobile devices. Down the road, in the near future, you will not only be able to use your phone to see legislation and see your representatives and get that information, but also to directly vote. Five years down the road, ten years, I think you’ll be able to pull out your phone and vote. Our goal is to have that be integrated into our app as well. We’re trying to be an all-in-one for any political need.
A big thank you to Alex from iCitizen for chatting with us at Sensible Reason! You can download and explore the iCitizen app for yourself here.
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Jenny’s love affair with music, culture, and politics began many years ago, and she has always found that love best expressed through writing. A graduate of the University of Rochester with a B.A. in Political Science and Religion and a minor in Music, she is fascinated by what makes people tick, move, and behave. Heading straight to New York City after graduating, she works in marketing, communications, and advertising in addition to writing, editing, and geeking out on WordPress for Sensible Reason.