Paul Rolfe is the founder and CEO of CapitolBuddy, a spring 2014 Betaspring Fellow company based in Providence. Rolfe spoke with Providence Business News about how his mobile app is changing the way advocates and lobbyists interact with state legislators.
PBN: How did your experience as a clean energy advocate in Missouri inspire CapitolBuddy? Was there no existing mobile app designed for this function?
ROLFE: I spent some time in Missouri’s state capitol meeting with legislators between 2010 and 2013, and my colleagues at our nonprofit were in there even more often. They often confirmed what I felt: It’s hard to know all 197 legislators in there – their faces, their committees, their staff people, etc. At the time, we didn’t know of any apps with that information in Missouri, although soon after building the first version of CapitolBuddy I did find the OpenStates app from the Sunlight Foundation. Still, I have continued going with CapitolBuddy because I felt we offered some extra tools like note-taking, team collaboration and vote counting.
We also offer a more regularly updated set of data. For instance, when the Rhode Island House committees changed in the middle of session this spring, it took Sunlight Foundation several months to update their data. If you’re a small organization that isn’t familiar with those changes right away, it can be pretty risky to have bad information. But don’t get me wrong, the Sunlight Foundation is still a great service for other types of data; in fact CapitolBuddy’s district map data comes from their application programming interface.
PBN: What kinds of information does CapitolBuddy provide to help lobbyists and advocates keep tabs on state legislators, and what difference does having this information make?
ROLFE: It provides a lot of essential contact and biographical information. The biggest potential resource for information gathering in the app is the public notes feature which just recently launched. The idea is that when the legislature is in session, CapitolBuddy users will create and share little updates with news on individual legislators or the legislature as a whole. You can share to the public, share to your team or just keep it private. Public notes can be up-voted, down-voted or flagged as inappropriate. You could think of it like Reddit, but for your state legislature.
Those tidbits from other CapitolBuddy users will be the most valuable info. For instance, you could learn that a bill is moving quicker or that a vote has changed one way or the other by listening to others’ chatter. That can the difference between winning a campaign in the legislature or losing it for an organization.
PBN: In an age when many voters worry about the influence of lobbyists and special interests on our elected officials, do you view CapitolBuddy as helping or hindering the democratic process?
ROLFE: I definitely view it as helping. It aims to open information up and make it widely available – we’re trying to coax the behind-closed-door information into becoming public information. While it’s really a better tool for people that work in the capitol, like nonprofit advocates, lobbyists and reporters, it can also help your average person to learn who their officials are and see news about those people.
The primary reason CapitolBuddy exists is to give small organizations like my former nonprofit a leg up at the state capitol when going head-to-head with powerful lobbyists.
PBN: In what states is CapitolBuddy currently available? Do you plan to expand to additional states, or add new functions to the app?
ROLFE: We’re currently in six states: Missouri, Rhode Island, Illinois, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. We’re first trying to make the app as helpful as possible in the current states. After we increase the activity and usage in the existing states, we’ll begin expansion to the rest of the states.
The newest updates we’re considering would let you follow certain legislators for news notifications and also give you voting history data. Getting that deep data like voting trends can be the hardest part because most state websites don’t have this information well organized or readily available, so we have to scrape the data from their websites – which can be a tricky process.
PBN: What do you see as the role of technology in politics going forward?
ROLFE: CapitolBuddy is on the edge of this increasing trend of apps and technology in the political sphere. There are several bill-tracking applications that notify advocates when their issues are a part of a bill or when those bills are moving through the legislature. Especially as more people continue to push for open information and open government, technology will be there to disperse the info and analyze it.
Technology is even churning up votes for people in many places where you have door-to-door canvassers using iPads. Since at least 2008, databases of voter information and social media campaigns have been a huge part of political races, so I think that sort of thing will continue to grow and become more powerful. Maybe some day technology will be so good at predicting votes and outcomes that we won’t even need the elected officials (only slightly kidding).