Upstart big data firm hacking policy and the law

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LAS VEGAS — A new startup founded by two Harvard grads aims to make influencing policy easier using publicly accessible data.

Their platform, called Quorum, pulls data from legislation, social media outlets and press releases to paint a picture of the relationships between lawmakers in Congress.

Speaking to FedScoop Wednesday at Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent conference, Jonathan Marks said co-founder Alex Wirth first conceived of the project while spending several summers working in Washington, D.C. Wirth knocked on doors and pressed flesh with D.C. movers and shakers, but grew frustrated when tried-and-true lobbying tactics were less than fruitful.

“[Alex] took a lot of meetings that weren’t valuable, he didn’t know where to go find out where he should go next or which people knew each other,” Marks said. “You shouldn’t have to be guessing on what’s going on. We should be able to figure out proxies for that by using computers and data. The original core of the idea was ‘Can we use computers to figure out which members of Congress know each other and work together based on previous patterns?’”

Since then, the two have moved to D.C., working with a 20-person team to get Quorum in front of four groups: Congress, lobbying firms, nonprofits and corporations. The platform, which costs $4,800 per user a year, has attracted interest from groups like Holland & Knight and The Podesta Group, nonprofits like First Focus and the United Nations Foundation, and companies like Toyota and GM, he said.

Quorum works by taking thousands of data points tied to Congress — everything from bills posted online to vote records to tweets — and makes it searchable using natural language processing tools. There is also an analytics engine that sits on top of that data, measuring interactions between legislators.

“It’s really difficult to get your hands on this data in the first place,” Marks said. “A PR client of ours used to have a member of their team check 100 different members of Congress’ websites every morning to see if there was a new press release. That’s a huge amount of time, that’s inefficient and that’s not really accomplishing the goals that you want.”

Once the data is collected, users can build profiles on legislators or causes using what Marks calls the “congressional relationship management” platform, tracking conversations and allow for mass emails that are tailored to fit the user’s needs.

“If you don’t know how to use mail merge and you are sending the same email, just replacing the name with 200 staffers, you’ve missed the technological revolution,” he said. “We’ve built a tool that allows you to mail merge thousands of staffers and legislators and send them a personal, customizable email right from our system. Because we build one cohesive system to accomplish tasks within it, you waste less time and do it all with the data side-by-side.”

That data, which Marks said is now into terabytes, is stood up on Amazon Web Services. He tells FedScoop that if he had to set up his own data centers, he wouldn’t be competing with the likes of services from CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg, and he’d have to solicit outside funding.

“The concept of starting this company with physical servers, like Facebook did 10 years ago, where you have to stand up infrastructure, is mind boggling to me,” he said. “We have tens of millions of sections in our database. If you want to go through and figure out, how similar are these sections, how much does this whole system work, that’s millions of combinations of different things. That’s insane. Trying to do that while paying for our own infrastructure? We couldn’t do it.”

Through AWS’ Activate program, Quorum received AWS credit as well as access to training and support, which Marks said helped launch the company.

“There is so much going on,” Marks said. “There are so many bills, so many votes and it’s hard to see the big picture. When you have all of the information, you can run a very quick analysis on it to say ‘let’s look at what issues differentiate this Congress from past Congresses.’ Once you’ve done the work to build the database, you can look at these things more globally.”

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Amazon Web Services, big data, Congress, data analytics, Government IT News, Quorum, Tech