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With Quorum, See What (and Who) Makes Congress Tick

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, March 5 2015

(Wikipedia)

Trying to influence Congress is hard work. You have to know who cares about what issues so you approach the right people. It also helps to know who has the power to actually make waves so you don't waste your time with ineffective members. In January, two Harvard seniors launched an online platform called Quorum that does the bulk of that work automatically, using a number of public data sources.

“Our goal is to bring a quantitative focus to Washington,” says Alex Wirth, who founded the company with his roommate Jonathan Marks. “We've seen the influence of data across a number of industries [like] finance and sports.” He of course mentions Moneyball.

Since Wirth and Marks began developing the platform, funded in part by winnings from the Harvard College Innovation Challenge, the team has grown to 12, and Wirth says they just hired three more—all undergraduates.

Through Quorum, you can see every bill, every vote, every amendment, press release, floor statement and tweet. Every member of Congress has a profile page that shows their top issues and who they work with most often. Quorum rates them on things like bipartisanship and liberalism (or conservatism), and assigns each member a “Quorum Score,” which roughly translates to influence. Quorum tells you with what frequency the member votes with their party and what percentage of their amendments pass.

Each of a thousand or so issues have their own profiles that show the number of related bills and the most active members, broken down by how liberal and how conservative they are. Quorum claims to have more than 800 million points of data, and the platform is updated every 24 hours.

Wirth hopes Quorum will allow people to spend less time in conference rooms strategizing and more time on Capitol Hill actually doing. He thinks it could help Congress become more productive and efficient.

It seems like a powerful tool, and anyone can access it for an annual fee of $4,800.

Wirth says Quorum is less expensive than their two biggest competitors, Bloomberg and CQ. For full-time lobbyists it's probably a steal—The Washington Post reported that two major lobbying firms, Holland & Knight and Glover Park, are already clients. The same likely goes for members of Congress.

However, armchair wonks and freelance journalists will likely not be able to afford that fee. Even cash-strapped media outlets could struggle to come up with the money. I asked if they had any plans to provide the service for a reduced fee to media outlets in the interest of public service.

“There's a lot we can do around pricing and access going forward...to make sure the platform gets in the hands of as many people as possible,” Wirth replied. “Our concern right now is how to build a sustainable service.”

Wirth did say that they have been in touch with many Washington media outlets and have provided some with complimentary three-month access, but he declined to name the outlets.

Last month, Quorum released the results of a small research project, which found that Senate women are better at working together, and working across the aisle, than Senate men. They hope to continue conducting similar public interest studies and sharing their results with the media.

Hopefully they do continue to work on expanding access, especially to media and journalists, otherwise a promising tool will remain in the province of the rich. Walled gardens are not transparent.