Harvard Innovation Challenge Winner Quorum Hopes To Replace Gaggles Of Interns In DC With Data-Driven Policy

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Every summer, thousands of mostly unpaid interns flood the nation’s capital to learn the intricacies of passing legislation (read: making coffee). All of those projects like “who voted for us?” and “what should we do next?” that have been on the office back burner since they just aren’t important to anyone now have a chance to grab the limelight. Few times during the year could potentially be so productive.

Unfortunately, this intern surge has always been accompanied by a similar anti-surge of congressmen vacating Washington to campaign in their home districts (or maybe just to avoid the interns). For decades, the people who need work done and the neophytes to do it have never been able to align their schedules, causing Washington to grind to a halt (may not be the only reason). Now, a new startup hopes to replace interns with computers, threatening our nation’s unproductivity.

Quorum is a real-time data analytics platform for politics started by a group of current Harvard and MIT undergraduates. The idea is to provide a comprehensive and beautifully-designed set of tools for legislative strategy, targeting everyone from Senate staffers to lobbyists to help them understand the dynamics of the capital. The product has been in private beta since September, and the team is now starting to bring it out more publicly.

The challenges are numerous in this space. “Figuring out who you should talk to is a really tough process,” Jonathan Marks, one co-founder of Quorum, explained. “This is a problem that a lot of our clients have, [since] there are tens of thousands of relationships in DC.” The challenge is magnified since those relationships change so often.

Another challenge is simply following legislation. Marks gave the example of a non-profit firm that wanted to develop a scorecard with grades for each congressmen on several key votes (a common strategy these days in Washington advocacy). One firm had “three people spending 1.5 weeks to tabulate all the data.” An opposition research firm went through “6000 votes on abortion” to tabulate every single congressman’s legislative history. This was all done manually (i.e. with an army of interns).

Quorum is hoping to solve these sorts of problems by providing a platform for better analysis. It has visual mapping tools that allow you to see intricate relationships between district demographics and votes. They have compiled 1400 statistics from the American Community Survey so that users can understand the context for votes beyond simple party affiliation.

The product also provides an overview of each congressmen and senator, offering a bevy of common statistics as well as some novel ones to get a better feel for the performance of each member. “Goal is to show you how effective people are at getting bills completed,” Marks says. “Instead of just giving you a number like number of education bills proposed, we want to show you relative to others how they do.” The team has also developed a ranking called the Quorum Score that looks at cosponsorship networks to identify who is most influential on Capitol Hill.

There is an advanced search for bills that allows for fine-grained queries. Finally, the product offers issue-specific pages and a set of productivity tools that Marks and his team hope will make collaboration in policy offices easier, and ultimately lead to better subscription sales.

Since its inception a little more than a year ago, the team has expanded to include 12 undergraduates across Harvard and MIT, all of whom are still in school and presumably still taking a full load of classes. Perhaps even more surprising, “A lot of our team hasn’t taken programming before,” Marks, a computational biochemist, told me. In short, these are the interns every office dreams of.

But a working product is only the first step toward rebuilding Washington –- first they need to get their foot in the door. The politics data business is dominated by two heavyweights: Bloomberg and CQ. Both have offered politics data products for more than a decade, and they have invested incredible resources into their data acquisition. While their interfaces are showing their age, both remain formidable competitors to new entrants in this space. Marks argues that Quorum should be thought of as an add-on to those other products, but that strategy may ultimately prove challenging in cash-strapped government offices.

Startups as well have been targeting the space. FiscalNote, which recently raised a new $10 million round of funding from RenRen, has developed a tool to predict the outcomes of different policies. Marks believes predictions are the wrong way to engage DC politicos. “Our users don’t trust these predictions, and instead we want to provide them the tools to make it easy to see their data and build the trust with our customers.”

The company has been entirely bootstrapped, both from their client sales and from prize money from a number of startup competitions, including a $10,000 victory in the Harvard College Innovation Challenge last year. The team isn’t looking for funding right now according to Marks, but may consider venture capital “as we move out of college.”

Between Quorum and the advent of the Keurig cup, interns in Washington have faced an onslaught of labor disruption. Now the question is, with all of this new data at their fingertips, can politicos in DC actually pass legislation?

Featured Image: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE