Could you tell us more about your startup and why you decided on public sector tech?
At Civis, we work on helping governments communicate more effectively with Indian citizens. As a citizen there are many social media platforms to express ourselves but there isn’t a forum to communicate about policy that impacts our daily lives. The problem is on both sides where a citizen is not going to read a 400 page law and a legislator might not have the means to interact with each citizen. Our solution is to make it fun for app users to get acquainted with a specific law, collect and analyze their feedback and then present highlights to legislators in 3 minute sessions.
When it comes to why we thought of doing it, I used to volunteer in the Civic Tech Movement space and saw platforms help governments optimize their functioning in Europe and Latin America. My real job at that time in Asia Society, an American think tank, revolved around policy formation and trade dialog. I started thinking about people who don’t have the access or the knowledge I have by virtue of being in the space. The turning point arrived around 2014–15 where the Indian government enacted policy changes requiring feedback from citizens. I saw this as an opportunity to step into the niche by building an interface and dashboard and on a personal level, entrepreneurship just made sense to me.
We were an early stage platform and it was exorbitantly expensive to have someone build it for us. With cost as a constraint, we could build it on WordPress which did not offer much customization. That approach didn’t work for Civis as we were so off the beaten path that we needed flexibility. Here is where Bubble really nailed it for me. Bubble said ‘do it how you like’ and that’s how we started with a blank page.
Once you identified an opening in the government’s policy and the right tools in Bubble, where did you find the demand from citizens?
We believed we would have to work really hard to get people interested. Instead we found cultural factors and types of engagements that motivate people to participate on issues. For instance, local amenities like neighborhood parks draw a lot of people. There are also demographic trends where people aged 18–25 are not active while 25–45 are very involved. We are lucky to strike mass media partnerships that help us with outreach. Experts from various industries volunteer to be our ambassadors. One of my favorite examples is a guy who reached out regarding public consultations he monitors for fun. He maintains a Google Sheet that supplies content to our platform every Monday. I thought I was the only nerd!
Every social platform tries to boost certain metrics whether it is likes, mentions, or taps forward. What do you want users to do more on the app?
A broader goal for us is to create a scalable platform that can shape a new narrative for how democracy functions, by using technology. A woman using Civis in rural India could share inputs on her local government’s allocation of resources towards sanitation, making sure her health and hygiene needs are met at a grassroots level. She can participate from her home and her inputs will be just as valued as other members of society. We also want to keep citizens engaged in the lull between elections. We started using Bubble late last year so we are still refining our metrics. We are exploring different methodologies for tracking what elected officials accomplish over a time period. Our recent wins include 1,600 participants for 8 legislations that would ultimately impact 13 lakh (1.3 million) citizens.
What are you excited about for your startup over the coming months?
In 4 months, we plan to introduce gamification where you can become a locality or city champ and play with your friends to earn badges. A few months further down, we are also excited to experiment with different mediums to convey our content. We currently have text based explanations of laws, but we are looking to expand to video or maybe even a chatbot that explains the law and answers questions from app users. These opportunities are now on the horizon with the introduction of revolutionary products like JioPhone that suddenly made high-speed internet available to the masses at Rs. 49 ($0.67) per month. We are targeting expansion of our city-centric English language app on Bubble to support regional languages using translation APIs and get hyperlocal feedback from smaller areas that the government finds useful and at scale, so does the nation.