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].