When officials in Newton want to engage their constituents, they have an easy way to connect. Using tools and software from the Boston startup Involved, they’re able to, for example, gauge how much more money ratepayers are willing to spend to bring in more renewable energy.
Founded by recent BU grad Jacob Dansey and co-helmed by fellow BU alum Caleb McDermott, Involved provides an important but all-too-often missing conduit between government and those who politicians are supposed to represent. Most recently, they helped the West End Civic Association in Boston poll locals about cannabis dispensaries.
We spoke with Dansey and McDermott, as well as their business advisor Ky Edwards, about their fresh civic technology and what it’s like to grow beyond the campus incubator where they started.
Where did the original idea for Involved come from?
JD: I originally had the idea for Involved back in high school. I’m from northern Virginia, right outside of DC, but I wasn’t really involved—I was discouraged by the process and the polarization. … It’s the suburbs where everyone is either in the government or working for the government. But just in general I felt disconnected from the two-party system. I personally don’t care too much about politics, and that’s where I was coming from with this—what would it take for someone like myself to engage in the civic conversation? How easy does it need to be to voice your opinion, get involved, and realize what you can do to change things? To get some average Joe like myself to voice their opinion. That’s been the north star for us—how do we make it accessible to that silent majority instead of just hearing the extremes on either side that you always hear from?
What did it look like when you first built it?
JD: I was thinking it should be a mobile app at first. I thought a [politician] would post a question, you would swipe to answer, and that’s it. Thumbs up, thumbs down. But that was just an idea—I started doing research in my sophomore year, and wound up switching my major to computer engineering so that I could learn how to make this app that I thought would be cool. … I was thinking politicians would want to run these surveys and ask questions, and that we could get enough people to download [the app]. But then the thing was how do we get these average Joes to download the app? That’s when we started to bring a team together. Caleb and I starting working on this together in our senior year in the BU Summer Accelerator, which gave us a grant of $10,000 to work on it full-time for a summer.
How painful was the progress?
JD: We ran into obstacles, but we’ve pivoted along the way to build something that’s much more organic without having to download something. The questions are now coming from local community councils and civic associations and school boards. They do these monthly meetings where their whole job is to take concerns from the public, and so we’re finding that this is the audience for these kinds of questions. It’s very grass roots. Everything else we saw that was anything like this was targeted toward people who were already active.
CM: We were working with state Rep. Liz Malia in her district at the time, and we had this mobile app. We were going around JP knocking on doors asking people to download it, but what we found was that while not a lot of people wanted to download the app, they were interested in the conversation and in receiving the questions in an email or a form that’s more convenient for them.
How does the current product work?
JD: We integrate with newsletters, and social media, and [politicians, civic groups, etc.] send out a question. You have your options to click, you can answer directly, you can leave a comment. The engagement this way is much high[er] than if there is only one external link. Users can do surveys on their own, and on the back end there’s a heat map of how people voted and a lot of other useful info.
What hurdles do you still face? And what’s next for Involved?
JD: We need civic groups and organizations posting questions, because every time they do it goes pretty wild.
CM: Most of all, we want to be full time with this. That’s our goal over the next six months, and then hopefully we can just keep growing it from there. We think it stacks a every level of government pretty well.
KE: We need to direct people, especially young people, to this platform so they can find out what their reps are doing. It’s really something for the future. This is the future of engagement.