UC Berkeley undergrads’ controversial web app draws national attention

Around this time last year, Nikita Bier could not help but be frustrated. Time and time again, he found himself locked in debates about the upcoming primaries with friends who based their arguments on what he saw as illogical reasoning — how candidates looked, their religious preferences or what they said in a commercial spot. Then a UC Berkeley senior, Bier wondered if there was some way concerned citizens — like his well-meaning but misguided friends — could better understand economic programs and how each candidate’s policies would hurt or help them.

Already obsessed with politics and public policy (he was voted “Future Politician” in high school), Bier took it upon himself to create the change he wanted to see. His vision became Politify.com, a recently introduced Web tool that allows users to graphically visualize the impacts of each candidate’s economic policies on their own household and neighborhood.

“Many people can tell you that a certain candidate will benefit you or hurt you, but we can tell you by exactly how many dollars, and we give you the link to check us in case we’ve made some kind of mistake,” said Jeremy Blalock, Politify’s co-founder.

The site aggregates economics-related data from both candidates, showing, for example, that a single 45-year-old who makes $100,000 a year and lives in the Berkeley Hills would probably benefit more economically from Mitt Romney’s tax plan than from Barack Obama’s.

Bier, a political economy and business double major, teamed up with Blalock, then a UC Berkeley sophomore, to design and produce his conception. Blalock offered the computer science know-how Bier needed to actually produce the application.

According to Blalock, both had sneaked into the demo day for a university startup incubator last October, and Bier’s enthusiasm for Politify convinced his future co-founder that the site was something worth pursuing.

“I had nothing,” Bier recalled. “I was just writing my name on pieces of paper and handing them to people.”

It was enough to convince Blalock.

“The idea he was trying to push sounded like nothing I’d heard of before,” Blalock said. “Politify seemed to fill a relatively untapped space.”

While at first they struggled to convince others of their application’s potential, the pair eventually won two major grants that have helped continue to fund their project. In April, they received $20,000 for winning the Big Ideas competition through the UC Berkeley Blum Center, followed soon thereafter by a $15,000 grant from the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency advocacy organization.

This sudden influx of funds allowed Biel and Blalock to continue perfecting their vision, working all summer out of classrooms in the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business to analyze and merge data sets from the IRS and Census and turn them into working models the average user can appreciate.

In less than a year, the site has grown from an extracurricular project by two UC Berkeley undergraduates to a high-profile online application that has garnered coverage by Forbes Magazine as well as the attention of some of the country’s highest-profile political players. In fact, the site has received more than 200 hits from the U.S. House of Representatives alone, according to Bier.

Politify’s pioneering offerings have also received resounding endorsements from some impressive figures in the political and public policy realms, including former secretary of labor Robert Reich and leading economist Emmanuel Saez, who both teach at UC Berkeley and have signed on as advisers to the project.

“I’m very impressed with the site,” Reich said in an email. “It takes relevant and useful information and puts it into a clear, interactive graph that will be very helpful to voters.”

Bier cites his own connection to the university as a key factor in Politify’s unprecedented success, calling it an “immense resource” to supplement his own lack of real-world political experience.

“Whenever we had a problem, we’d go visit the smartest person in the world on that subject,” he said.

Politify’s offerings reflect Bier’s controversial view that social issues are not as important as the average citizen might believe, an idea grounded in the belief that the executive rarely alters such laws, no matter how much weight these issues are given in the mainstream media.

“The executive is mainly the budget guy,” Bier said. “Our tool is meant to look at what presidents actually do — fiscal policy.”

Although it took months of labor and numerous rejections from campus competitions and incubators, Bier and Blalock never lost faith in their vision.

“I knew that this (was) a huge unmet need in American politics,” Bier said. “It was only a matter of time until someone came along and built it.”

Sara Grossman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

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  • Calipenguin

    I looked at that site once and didn’t find any details on how the U.S. economy is modeled. Was everything taken into consideration? How does Obama’s support for illegal aliens affect California’s overextended hospitals, prisons, and schools? How do Democrat taxes affect corporate decisions to expand facilities overseas and cut jobs here? Will Democrat refusal to fix Social Security burden young college graduates with greater responsibility to support the elderly? Just how detailed is the computer model?

    • I_h8_disqus

      Two guys built it during their summer. That should give you an idea.

      • Calipenguin

        I thought so. Wall Street investment banks spend hundreds of millions of dollars to hire teams of statisticians and programmers to build expensive high speed computer clusters to model something as complex as human behavior in an uncertain U.S. economy, and two guys think they can do it all in one summer.

        • I_h8_disqus

          I should be fair, and add that the article said that the program was an extracurricular activity before the summer, so there was some work before the summer.

  • Guest

    obama supports the slaughter of unborn children. How his budget affects your bank account is meaningless.

  • Mark Talmont

    So how does sending our military to Afghanistan to get killed by the people they are ordered to train fit into this?

  • Cindy

    Have any of you gone onto this website and put in your data to see which candidate would help you economically. It also shows how the area you live in would be affected by the economic policies of each. Then it shows how the country as a whole would be affected. Obama helps the country as a whole. He also helps my area more than Romney would. As a retired person whose husband has a pension, Romney would reduce our income by $2,000.00 and Obama would reduce it by $400.00. Guess who I am voting for? The problem for this site is that most people will not spend a few minutes putting in their information to see how a Romney win will affect their economic lives. There are so many Americans who slit their own throats every four years by voting Republican. Ignorance is protected by the constitution. But that doesn’t mean you have to remain ignorant!

    • I_h8_disqus

      I did go to the site and check it out first. It is perfect for a person like you who only cares about that extra $1,600 a year, and doesn’t care about anything else other than their own money. You don’t care if the economy does better or any thing about social issues. You will just vote for the guy who some web site says will save you the most money. You vote like you shop for groceries.

  • Progressive

    The point is not how much wealthier the wealthy could become but what is best for America. Without a strong middle class, ultimately everyone loses and the middle class will not be strengthened by eviscerating Medicare, healthcare and Social Security nor by ignoring America’s infrastructure and education.

    It is time for the Willard Mitt Romney’s of the world to pay their fair share and show some patriotism for America rather than the Cayman Islands.

    MOSTLY, though, it is women of reproductive age who should be terrified of Romney & Company. Want to carry your rapists’ baby? Want to be forced to die if it comes to a choice of you or the fetus? Want to give up your constitutionally protected right to choose? Vote Romney. Want to insure that you and your rights will survive? Kick your Romney-loving boyfriend to the curb. Drop that sonofabitch like a bad penny and move on unless he changes his evil ways.

    • I_h8_disqus

      Take a minute to look at how California’s economy and public education system compared to the rest of the nation over the last couple of decades, and then you get a clearer picture of how your ideas work. California is near the bottom in both areas. They have been for a while. California is a Democratic state that keeps a Democratic legislature in power all the time. They killed K-12 education and they are working on killing the UC. They have created an environment where the middle class can’t find work, because the businesses have left the state. Only Nevada and Rhode Island have higher unemployment. The nation would get the same treatment from you policies. That is why you won’t see Obama or Romney acting like California or like you.

      And we can tell you have no morals when you use scare tactics like rapists or death by coat hanger to try to change people’s votes. Neither Romney nor Obama is going to do anything to change abortion laws in the country.

      • guest

        The ‘Democratic legislature’ cannot pass anything tax- or budget-related without support from the Republican minority (2/3 rule). So how can you blame them only for the state of CA?

        • I_h8_disqus

          Since Democrats have made up over 60% of the assembly and the senate, they don’t need much Republican help to reach two thirds. It is true that there is some Republican responsibility, but we all know that the laws related to California basically reflect the Democrats. The Republicans mostly try to limit the Democrats from doing even more to hurt the state’s economy and education system, but they only stop the Democrats if they unanimously oppose a bill.

  • rixeli

    The executive is mainly the budget guy.” What a huge over simplification this mindset is of the office of the president. That means we should elect Romney, because with his business experience he is much more the budget guy than a lawyer like Obama. It is good that now the president knows that all he needs to do is base his decisions on the financial impact to the country and ignore the rest. “How should we handle that issue in the middle east? Someone run the profit and loss analysis.” “How will gay marriage affect our tax revenues?”

    http://www.nabiz61.com

    • I_h8_disqus

      The link looks like it is just SPAM.

  • I_h8_disqus

    “The executive is mainly the budget guy.” What a huge over simplification this mindset is of the office of the president. That means we should elect Romney, because with his business experience he is much more the budget guy than a lawyer like Obama. It is good that now the president knows that all he needs to do is base his decisions on the financial impact to the country and ignore the rest. “How should we handle that issue in the middle east? Someone run the profit and loss analysis.” “How will gay marriage affect our tax revenues?” Looking at the advisers, when did the left become all about the money implications?

    • guest

      Are you posting under two names?

      • I_h8_disqus

        No. It seems rixeli just used most of my post to hide the SPAM link he added.

    • Guest

      “How should we handle that issue in the middle east?”

      That’s an entirely financially-based issue, and even if you deny that you cannot deny that it has extreme financial impact. We spend at least $1 trillion annually on “defense”. We invaded Iraq to liberate its…oil. Etc.

      “How will gay marriage affect our tax revenues?”

      Wut. It would probably cost more to do the study than the answer is worth…and it’s not like we’re going to give or deny someone their rights based on how it affects the tax structure lol.

      • I_h8_disqus

        So the Democratic argument now is that the middle east is about money. Not about freedom for Palestine or the improvement of human rights for women or religious groups. Guest, you note the financial impact. That is much different than saying the president is the budget guy. A budget guy would have left Iraq alone, because the cost of removing Sadaam far exceeds the money to be made from Iraq’s oil.

        Your answer to my hypothetical gay marriage question shows that you don’t think this is about money either. Deciding who has the right to do this or that is not about money. Politify ignores the non-money issues, and so it ignores the social issues. What Democrat is not voting about social issues? If Democrats want to base their decisions on money, then just be honest and tell the rest of us that is your only consideration. You can make your decisions based on Politify, and the rest of us can base on decisions on more.