Bill_de_Blasio_Inauguration

New Yorkers have a new and progressive — some would say “lefty” — mayor, Bill de Blasio. The more politically savvy among us (a small group) will stay up to date on what our city government is doing, beyond banning Central Park’s iconic horse-drawn carriages. The rest of us will tune out until the next election. That’s a shame, because greater civic participation would benefit us all.

So I’m always pleased to learn about programs that attempt to combat this crowd-sourced political malaise. Of course, there’s Change.org, but also MindMixer and Code For America, all of which place their belief in technology to help increase civic participation. And they deserve credit for the work they’re trying to do: create active and aware citizens in the muddle of apathetic Americans.

Adding to that list is iCitizen, an app that users track local politicians, as well as participate in polls that are delivered to elected officials. The app has been in various iterations since 2012 and operates on three fronts:

  1. it provides users with a variety of sources about political issues they care about
  2. it lets users keep tabs on their politicians voting records
  3. and it gives users polls about current political issues and lets politicos see the results

The company’s CEO Rodney Massey told me that the idea is to “give citizens a voice between election cycles.”

The app contains a home screen, which displays top news content about various political issues. From there users can navigate to an “Issues” section, which aggregates content about matters important to the user, a “Reps” section that lets users follow their representatives political moves, and a place where users can take polls. Massey thinks all of these features together will help increase political awareness.

Right now iCitizen is a free iOS app, which launched in late October. Massey explained that he wants the app to be as neutral as possible and not espouse a political philosophy. He wouldn’t say how many users the app has, but claimed it had more users in the first month than Pinterest had in its first nine months (an essentially meaningless comparison). Also, a few weeks ago it hit the top 5 in news apps in the iOS App Store, competing against the likes of CNN, NPR, and the New York Times. As I write this it’s ranked 15th.

Merely having an iPhone app where users can remain abreast of important issues and know what their politicians are doing isn’t enough, Massey says. Although, I think the politician part is a worthy app in and of itself. First, an Android version is on the way. Second, he wants there to be a companion app strictly for politicians. Massey sees the companion as a platform to provide the app’s polls to the lawmakers. The companion would provide an “analytics dashboard” that aggregates how constituents feel, and, hopefully, the politicians would follow their citizens’ lead.

This is one feature of the app I particularly like. Say de Blasio goes through with his promise to ban horse-drawn carriages in Central Park, I can participate in a non-scientific poll and the mayor will see the results. This isn’t too far off from Change.org’s Decision Makers tool, which allows for politicians to directly respond to those who signed petitions, as well as hold politicians accountable for promises made because of these decisions.

I also like the educational aspect. It’s not just about one issue, but keeping tabs on what your representatives are actually doing. A centralized place to track political doings is useful — especially on a mobile device.

As Massey sees it, the most important improvement to be made is to “give elected officials the ability to contact and interact with their constituents.”

It sounds good on paper, but I wonder how it will play out in practice. The first hurdle would be amassing enough users to represent a true chunk of the electorate. And that won’t be easy.

If someone is too apathetic to stay abreast of local issues, what makes you think he’s not too apathetic to download an app and use it?

[Image via Wikimedia]