Atlanta software developer Horace Williams traces the inspiration for his new mobile app to the outpouring of anger and activism that occurred in the wake of the 2012 shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
The son of a Brooklyn lobbyist and community activist, Williams knew political power is based on building connections. Those connections allow you to get access to your elected leaders when you need them.
That’s when he came up with the idea for Empowrd, an app that instantly shows you who your elected leaders are and connects you with their phone numbers and email addresses. Using geolocation and a heavy set of overlapping databases, the app traces your leaders from the president and congressmen down to state lawmakers, local school board members, city councilors, prosecutors and judges.
And as an African American, a millennial and a software designer, he was in the sweet spot to think differently about how to leverage technology so citizens could easily reach out to their leaders.
The maze of government is hard for many people to negotiate and often they never know who their leaders are, he said.
“The complexity around the system is something no one wants to be a part of,” he said. “There is nothing accessible about it.”
Georgia app’s test state
You can find these people with a Google search if you know what you are looking for, but Williams said Empowrd cuts through the mystery of jurisdictional lines and just points you to the leaders. Williams sees Empowrd as a way to straighten out the lines of communications that frustrate citizens and elected officials alike.
So far, folks who download the app have instant access to their governors, congressional representatives and other constitutional offices, no matter where they live. About 16,000 elected officials are in the app’s database, although Georgia is the only state fully represented so far.
Williams said the Peach State is a perfect place to test Empowrd. First, it’s “kind of a swing state” in terms of the relative balance in voting-age residents who describe themselves as Republican and Democrat, although elected officials are predominately Republican.
Williams said the state’s massive number of counties (only Texas has more) and complex jurisdictional lines provided just the right challenge for the software.
Also, he said, the Southeast hasn’t been a hotbed for mobile political apps, so it gives Empowrd a chance to get up and running with voters and elected officials without a lot of market confusion.
The app is part of Williams’ personal development in becoming an active part of Atlanta’s civic life. Although he came from a political family in New York, his personal consciousness emerged more gradually.
Williams came to Atlanta to work for the social marketing firm Vitrue, which had purchased the tech startup he worked at in New York. When Vitrue was itself purchased in 2012 by California-based Oracle, Williams started thinking about his next steps and how to mesh his software expertise with growing desire to engage in civic life.
The entrepreneurial side of him saw vacuum in the mobile app arena when it came to politics and social activism. For years, Williams said he worked on software “that marketers paid millions of dollars for to make millions of dollars.”
“That same amount of effort isn’t put toward our democratic process,” he said.
Feeding apathy or empowering voters?
Kurt Young, chairman of the Clark Atlanta University Political Science Department, said he sees the development of apps around political communication and activism as a logical step with a lot of promise. It just so happens that the technological advances that make apps like Empowrd possible are happening during a dynamic political period for a young, diverse electorate, he said.
“What we are seeing unfolding now is the beginning of a shift in the political culture, whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Ferguson (Missouri) or this pipeline discussion with Native Americans,” Young said.
This shift, he said, has a technological component embedded within it. “Remember,” he said, “Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag.”
However, Young said whether apps like Empowrd deliver a high-quality of political communication is yet to be seen. Other internet-based revolutions that have promised to democratize communication have produced mixed results, at best. (I’m looking at you, Twitter.)
“It can have the potential of feeding into (voter) apathy and normalizing a kind of low civic education,” he said. In short, tap the app and shout at your elected official may be direct, but it’s not necessarily an improvement.
Cutting through political noise
Williams said the app is actually attempting to cut through the “noise” of misdirected political communication and steer it into the right channels.
For example, Williams said he might get a link to a Change.org petition on some environmental issue in Colorado. “That’s great. I press the like button,” he said. But the Colorado leaders on the other end of that petition aren’t interested in what someone in Atlanta thinks in the same way they are about their own constituents, he said.
“That’s where hyper-localization is so important,” he said.
New features expected to come online in the coming weeks will allow more direct communication between constituents and officials, including isolating officials by topic areas, like guns or health care. Leaders will be able to identify and reach out to voters in their district as well, he said.
At the very least, Williams said he and his team of developers have quickly become very plugged into Georgia politics.
“I didn’t know a single elected leader in Georgia 18 months ago,” he said. “Today we’ve got close to 100 that are interested in our system.”
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