Tech startups offer tools to help winnow issues from politics

Nick Troiano with the political reform group changepolitics.org discusses his technology during the American Experiments event inside the University City Science Center. (Todd Bookman/WHYY)

Nick Troiano with the political reform group changepolitics.org discusses his technology during the American Experiments event inside the University City Science Center. (Todd Bookman/WHYY)

As the messy process of democracy plays out in Philadelphia this week, some civic tech startups are showing off tools aimed at cleaning up our politics.

More than a dozen groups from around the country gathered for an event titled American Experiments, hosted by the University City Science Center and the new Microsoft Reactor space. It included a showcase and “Shark Tank” style pitch competition.

“Technology is the tool, it is not the solution,” said Nick Troiano from changepolitics.org, which allows users to craft a personalized ballot based on input from trusted online contacts. “[Tech] has been used to date not in the way to bring more participation or more competition … we hope to employ technology in a way that is much more constructive and positive.”

Cooler heads rarely prevail online when politics come up, but the startup Brigade is working to create a social media platform for discussing issues.

“One of our founding principles was that there is no place to have meaningful, actionable debates and discussions with other voters about issues you care about on the internet,” said vice president of communications Andrew Noyes. “We want to ensure that high-quality, civic and political debate and discourse is happening 24/7/365.”

Of course, after a week of nonstop rallies, protests and speeches, Philadelphia may yearn for a few quiet hours after the DNC. But come November, many of these groups are hoping to land informed voters in the booths. Take for example an app called, simply, Voter, which bills itself as the Tinder for politics.

“You answer a handful of questions based on your political beliefs, we can show you which candidates support the same issues that you do, and have a track record to back that up,” said creator Hunter Scarborough.

The website BallotReady has a similar goal, bringing more information about candidates up and down the ticket directly to your fingertips.

“People say things like, this is the first time I’ve never had to guess when voting for judges. This is the first time I’ve completed my whole ballot,” said Alex Niemczewski, the Chicago-based founder and CEO. “They say things like, I didn’t even know what a water reclamation commissioner did before this.”

All of the participating groups are officially nonpartisan, and they include a mix of nonprofit and for-profit corporations. The event was supported by the local good government group Committee of Seventy.

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