Today Ben and I are announcing the release of a new iPhone app called Contact Congress. What it does is really simple: grabs your location (or you can give us an address), locates your representatives, and lets you get on the phone with them in two taps.
Why we built it
Like many folks who work on the web, Ben and I hadn’t really thought that much about contacting our representatives before the justified uproar around SOPA/PIPA. A quick poll of our friends and relatives told us that they, though many of them are unhappy with what their congresspeople were doing, hadn’t either. Moreover, most people, myself included, couldn’t name the representative for their local district (most could name their congresspeople (persons?)).
While watching the SOPA hearings we became acutely aware that our voices, and opinions, weren’t really being heard by the members of the committee despite valiant efforts by folks like Rep. Zoe Lofgren. Then, in her AMA, she made this comment:
I have noticed lot of commentary on line, many thoughtful comments, tweets, etc. But most Representatives are not as plugged into the net world as many of you are. To be heard, you must speak, directly and either by phone or in person. Tweets, emails, petitions are nice, but they don’t get the same level of attention.
We decided to poke around and see what it took to actually find trustworthy contact information, and make an effort to contact our representatives. A few searches/browsing/parses later, we had numbers. Then we had to switch modes and actually pick up the phone. It honestly seemed absurdly difficult for something so important. This was something we could make easier. So we decided to build a tool to help grease the wheels of communication.
It feels right
Something that we didn’t totally anticipate is that having this information on your phone just feels right. Our representatives not only work for us but also make decisions every day that impact our lives. Is there anyone else in your life that fits that bill whose number isn’t in your phone?
I remember seeing a presentation by Jason Putorti, co-found of the very awesome Votizen, where he said that (I am paraphrasing here) congress receives an immense amount of communication every year from a very small number of individuals/organizations. The implication is that our representatives understanding of their constituents is severely skewed to the fringes (to the folks who were willing to make the effort or had a *really* good reason to. See also: Lobbyists).
We’re hoping that by removing some of the effort we can increase the number of folks who actually do it. We know that tools aren’t enough, but we’re hopeful that what we see today at the political extremes (Tea Party/OWS) is the start of larger movement to creating a more civic-minded nation. Contact Congress isn’t the force that will drive the movement, but we hope it’s like a really good hammer for the folks — like you — that will be building the movement: a great tool that you come back to over and over to help you get the work done.
What’s it cost?
The core functionality of the product (finding and contacting your representatives) is completely free. We’ve added a simple in-app purchase, a silly costume for the party of your choice, to help support the costs we will incur from running the app.