An app launching this week from Pittsburgh startup BeamData aims to provide people with a direct line to their elected officials. Be the Change allows a user to create a profile that automatically generates a list of representatives based on their home address. From there, people can check out posts in their neighborhood about issues and upvote or downvote posts, similar to Reddit.
Bhavini Patel, who founded BeamData and Be the Change, is a 26-year-old former Allegheny County Council candidate. She said her experience running for office got her thinking about how officeholders interact with their constituents after the door knocking and election canvassing ends.
“What sort of engagement happens after that?” she wondered. “Because I wanted to stay consistently involved. I didn't want to just run for office and then kind of disappear."
She imagines the app could be used for people to report things like poor air quality or a stretch of road marred by potholes. But legislators can also benefit from using the app, according to Patel. Officeholders would have location-based access to information about problems in their legislative districts, something Facebook and Twitter can’t provide.
It’s also hard to communicate with an officeholder on other social media platforms, she said. Users get lost in the fray of comment threads that can quickly devolve into partisan bickering. To prevent that from happening on Be the Change, Patel designed it so users can make individual posts as well as up or downvote posts, but they can’t comment. That feature is reserved for the elected official to whom the post is directed.
State Sen. Jay Costa will be the first legislator to pilot the app, according to Patel. Costa represents Pennsylvania’s 43rd legislative district, which includes a large swath of Pittsburgh neighborhoods as well as Penn Hills, Oakmont, Rankin and Wilkinsburg.
In a statement, Costa said his office is looking forward to using the app to allow his constituents to interact with him virtually while it’s unsafe to do so in person. “Even before COVID-19, more and more of our communication had become virtual, and now – the majority of our contact is done that way,” he said. “I can’t wait to work through this pilot period and help folks with their concerns on a new platform.”
The pilot will last two to three months, according to Patel. After BeamData and Sen. Costa’s office collaborate to sort out any bugs in the app, Patel said she plans to onboard other state legislators. She also said she expects Costa to encourage some of his fellow state senators to join the app, to improve collaboration on problem-solving in adjacent districts.
Patel said she hopes to expand beyond the state Senate to the offices of county councils and mayors across Pennsylvania. The app could facilitate collaboration among the different levels of government, she said.
“I think the potential for something like this in terms of building better communication infrastructure and more communication efficiency is really important,” Patel said.
Be the Change will launch in the Apple App store Aug. 6. The app will launch for Android devices soon after.