Letters From the Trenches are letters written by activists for activists, highlighting some of the work that’s making a difference in our world. Our latest installment is written by Malous Kossarian, activist and founder of Act.Today.
Act.Today was largely a response to the election, but the mechanics were based on ideas I had been working through for much longer.
After the election, many of my friends wanted to find something they could do to contribute to some positive force. Immediately after the election results came in, most of them took to facebook and twitter to post their thoughts and emotions. Their posts ranged from simply venting pure emotion (usually confusion, anger, and pain) to providing more thought provoking and action oriented posts telling their friends what they planned to do. If nothing else, I’d never seen my (facebook) friends so engaged and mobilized in the political sphere – so focused on finding a way they could help change the world around them.
And that got me thinking.
Even before the reality of our new political landscape consumed daily thoughts, I had wanted to build a platform that made it easier to volunteer locally with different organizations. After graduating from college I was frustrated to find out how much harder it is in the “real world” to get involved in the community. In college, it was common to have a few hours in the middle of a weekday that you could build community service into, and schools are good at developing a hub of opportunities. When I started working, I realized most groups had meetings and events in the middle of a work day, or they required a 6-12 month commitment that I didn’t know if I could honor.
It was surprisingly difficult to find a volunteer activity I could attend. I wanted to make it easier for people to find activities they could actually attend, and give them the ability to filter activities they wanted to take part in based on their interests and expected level of commitment. I also wanted to make it easier for organizations to advertise their events, since there were groups that fit my criteria, but were less prominent and harder to find in searches. I played around with this idea for a while, building out some test sites and even a prototype site for a group that provided services for homeless groups in San Francisco. The project fizzled out, partially because organizations were hesitant about the technology change. That was really frustrating – I thought that something I spent so much time and energy on just might not find the right market fit.
But then, the election happened.
November 2016 marked the resurgence of this project, but with a political twist. I found that political activist groups experienced many of the same logistical issues I had been trying to solve with the volunteer platform I had created before.
But besides that, there were a series of issues that have always frustrated and deterred me from getting involved in politics, and I wanted to work through each of them to see if there was a solution.
- Living in California, my representatives are doing roughly what I want. Is there value to calling my reps just to have the same opinion as them?
- While I generally agree with the Democratic agenda, there are specific causes I disagree with. Is there a point in focusing on these or bringing them up, or will they just cause wider division?
- Even if I make one call a day, that’s still only 25 calls a month. Does it really make a difference if I do my single call?
- How do I know what bills are real and which ones are introduced and then immediately abandoned? I don’t want to waste my time calling or reading about a bill that has no chance of moving.
- Usually I hear about bills when they’re about to be voted on, like the healthcare bill earlier this year. It feels like if they’ve scheduled a vote on the floor, it’s probably too late to really change anyone’s mind. Is there a way to know where bills are more susceptible to changes?
- What actually leads to change? Does it help to tweet at my rep, or is it better to call them? Should I call, email or fax if I want to make sure my voice is counted?
I looked at different political sites and apps to see if something out there already answered those questions and addressed my needs. I found that most things were tailored around a specific ask – research a bill, look up voting history of a rep, donate money to this candidate – but this required someone to keep up with a dozen sites a day to stay up to date. Most of these tools also were limited to consuming information, rather than a more social and bi-directional sharing of information.
And nothing out there answered my questions.
My goal was to make it as easy as possible for people to find information and act on it. If I could make it fun somehow, that would be even better. My working theory was (and still is) that the more I could lower the activation energy, the more likely people were to take that first step.
With that, Act.Today started. It began as a vague idea to combine solutions to different pain points in the process, and make it look and feel interesting to keep people engaged.
I started by doing research, making sketches, and texting most of my contacts pitches and asking for their feedback. One friend suggested it should be a dating app based on political preferences, another suggested turning it into a platform for people to post arguments and debate, which sounds like a more painful version of the YouTube comments section.
As I thought through more of the logistics, the designs became more concrete, and I had a solid flow for how users could sign up, do their research, and start taking actions. I had some experience with ElasticSearch, so I pulled down data from GovTrack to see what there was to work with. I enlisted the help of two friends to build out a proof of concept, and we began building (probably more than) an MVP of the platform.
What we’ve created is a comprehensive platform. It’s a one-stop-shop for activists – it’s got bill information, actions to take, groups to join – you name it. It’s also fun! Act.Today encourages users to connect with their “red” state friends and ask them to take actions – solving my “I live in a blue state how can I help” problem. And by tracking how many of the people I’m connected with take actions, it shows me what my actual impact is. Suddenly, the one call that I make is amplified through my network. (And it doesn’t hurt that Act.Today gives you electronic badges once for taking action. Hey – those rewards help!)
I’ve worked on other side projects before, but this has been the most serious one by far. Having a small team to work with has made sure we keep up the momentum, and kept us all more excited about the development.
One of the most challenging things for me has been the transition from tech/product management to the marketing and PR side for the Act.Today launch. Reaching out to journalists, other political tech founders, and local activists has required a level of extroversion I’m not used to, but has been a very exciting learning experience for me. And right now, don’t we all need to push outside our comfort zones?
This week, we launched Act.Today as a web app, and we’re excited to share this platform with anyone looking for a research tool that helps them get more involved!
You can join us by signing up at Act.Today. We’d love to have you – spread the word!