When Marci Harris and Rachna Choudhry were seated next to one another at a Washington dinner party in early 2009, neither one realized she had met her future business partner.
In fact, their initial conversation wasn’t exactly collegial.
Choudhry, then a federal lobbyist, took the opportunity to lament that poor communication from Congress stifles advocates. Harris, then a congressional staffer, shot back that their offices are inundated with often-dubious correspondence.
The pair now make up two of the three minds behind Popvox. The online system creates a direct and transparent line of communication for constituents and advocacy groups to reach the representatives who make decisions on their behalf.
Harris recruited government transparency enthusiast Josh Tauberer to serve as the company’s chief technology officer, tapping the knowledge he amassed from building GovTrack.us, one of the first open government technology plays.
“In every other aspect of our lives we’re used to customer service. We’re used to seeing the impact of our opinion being taken into consideration,” Harris said. “There really wasn’t a way to take that same expectation and apply that to Congress.”
Popvox acts as a nonpartisan delivery mechanism. Users post their comments publicly with a screen name of their choosing and Popvox privately routes their real name and address to members of Congress. This allows congressional aides to see whether the feedback comes from their member’s district.
Popvox tabulates public sentiment in each district or state on specific bills, so everyone, including the media, can watch how Congress responds.
The idea has intrigued tech observers and investors alike. Popvox won the social media category at this year’s widely attended South by Southwest festival in Austin. It has also amassed an advisory and angel investor team that includes O’Reilly Media chief executive and open government proponent Tim O’Reilly.
Jason Shrensky was among the angel investors in attendance in April when Harris peddled Popvox at the University of Maryland’s Capital Access Network. He recalls thinking the idea had legs.
“Do they scratch an itch in terms of communicating with Congress? Yeah,” Shrensky said.
The site’s existing format allows primarily for one-way communication, but there are plans to expand its features to include online caucuses, polls and other interactive elements. The creators are also developing widgets that can live on advocacy groups’ Web pages to drive traffic.
“If you really see what’s missing in that grass-roots advocacy puzzle, it’s the transparency which leads to accountability,” Choudhry said. “You can send a million letters to Congress and then put it in a press release, but there’s no way to verify” one’s efforts.
With any start-up that involves social media and personal networks, Shrensky said, one question almost automatically comes to mind: Could Facebook swoop in and do the same thing?
“That is your biggest risk,” he said. But Facebook does not really create a conducive atmosphere for political debate. “What’s the two things you’re not going to talk about in public company? Politics and religion,” he said.
The company will likely face other challenges as it looks to raise money and enter the market. At least one competitor, Silicon Valley-backed social media company Votizen, aims to serve a similar purpose.
But the founders said the fact that they have spent years working within the system of Washington makes them more intimately aware of the processes and headaches that exist from K Street to Capitol Hill.
“We don’t assume bad motives or that Congress doesn’t want to hear from people,” Harris said. “On the contrary, we know from the inside that Congress does care but it’s hard to hear above the noise.”