Building a New America: Marci Harris

Microsoft Bay Area is committed to helping solve local challenges through technology, deep relationships and a commitment to serving the needs of the Bay Area community. Here on our blog, we’ve focused on the organizations and civic leaders that are moving our cities forward. In this series, we’re highlighting fellows from New America CA, which supports social entrepreneurs at the forefront of local innovation.

What if you could impact new laws and policies right on your phone?

With POPVOX, you can. Co-founded by Marci Harris, 2016 New America California Fellow, POPVOX is a platform for civic engagement that directly connects constituents to policymakers, meshes real-time legislative data with personal stories, and provides a digital metric for advocacy.

Founded in 2010, POPVOX helps people find out about state legislation and connect with state lawmakers to make civic change in one convenient platform. As a mission-focused civic startup, POPVOX is a bit of a hybrid — the corporation has a dual mission to scale and return value while empowering individuals and making government more accountable.

Harris is no stranger to the legislative environment, having worked as a congressional staffer from 2007 to 2010. That’s where she first identified the struggle constituents were facing in having their voices heard.

“I loved working on the Hill,” she explains, “but was extremely frustrated with how information flowed both for staffers who were overworked, and under-resourced, and for constituents who frequently were scared about things not actually happening.”

So she set a goal: to create a platform that solved both of these problems while helping advocacy programs. She also wanted to prove to lawmakers that there are real people behind the decisions they make, and show them the physical impact of their policies.

“Our goal was to bring a system that already existed offline — of individuals contacting lawmakers — into the digital age and create a place for that to happen online. We wanted this process to be more transparent and accessible for everyone.”

In 2010, very few people on Capitol Hill understood technology, “even in a very general sense,” says Harris. Because of this, an even smaller population were thinking about how to use technology in the governing process to better the process for constituents.

“The world of tech wasn’t engaging very productively at that time,” Harris explains. “Even just the idea that someone who really cares about Congress could also really understand tech and how it can be used in legislating and the citizenship process was really different back then.”

Over the years, Harris has seen this grassroots movement in civic technology spring forth, with initiatives like, Sunlight Fund, and more working with people who were established on the Hill to make government info and data more accessible.

“That was a long time ago,” Harris says, “and over the years I think there is an increasing understanding in congress that tech is not a separate thing. It’s not a topic like healthcare or foreign policies — every topic that is covered in congress is impacted in some way by technology. Now every company is a tech company. Now every policy area is a tech area.”

Harris is interested in the way that congress, administration, constituents, and outside organizations will all leverage data and new tools in an effort to better understand the impact of policy on people, economy, environment, and everything in the future. She credits her time with New America California to her ability to further this work — likening New America to a teacher that makes you prioritize an assignment you need to get done. She says New America’s focus on personal development has helped her get her work out into the world.

“Sometimes when you’re working to build something,” she says, “a lot of the encouragement you’re not on the receiving end, and that’s something that they’re really great about.”