December 04, 2015

Even if your holiday dinner table heats up with debates over hot-button issues like gun control and abortion, you might be able to get everyone to agree on this: the politicians charged with deciding policy on these issues are doing a poor job.

For a group of young tech entrepreneurs in Nashville, the reason our elected leaders fail us is simple: the influence of money in politics. If voters could see the flow of money into politicians’ campaign accounts, the entrepreneurs reasoned, they’d vote differently at the polls. And soon enough, we’d have better leaders.

That's how the start-up Poliana was born. 

Poliana's strategy was to offer up cool charts and graphs, which clearly showed how cash influenced politics.

“It is really hard to make government sexy and appealing to people,” says Patrick Cason. “I think we really tried and we thought that data visualization was one way that we would do that.”

Cason was a developer on Poliana, which unveiled an interactive website in July 2014 stuffed with data just waiting to be graphed by users.

“So you could actually click and drag and say ‘I want to view info about Barack Obama... how much money he raised, who he raised it from, between the years of 2011 and 2012.’ And you would be able to just get a very specific date range and you could see, ‘Oh, well, he raised more from lawyers this year versus from teachers.’”

But they found out quickly that it’s one thing to create helpful information for voters. It’s another to get them to actually use it. The beta version of their website attracted a few hundred users a day. It was up for less than a year.

“This was not something that you needed on a daily basis,” Cason says. “It's not like Facebook where it's something you come to every day and there's always something new for you or whatnot.”

The Poliana team couldn't attract advertisers, so they brainstormed different ways to turn a profit, including charging for access to their charts and graphs. But, in the end, Cason says they realized that there simply wasn't a market for them. And they saw something wrong in charging people for basic access.

“We felt that you shouldn't have to pay for transparency," Cason says. "You shouldn't have to pay for democracy to work the way it's intended to work.”

innovation hub, Culture, politics, pri, Kara Miller

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