Do you want to become a more informed citizen? Take meaningful action in your community? Malous Kossarian would like to help.
In November 2016, while en route to her job working on IBM’s Watson AI platform, Kossarian scrolled through her social feeds and saw how many people in her network were interested in making a difference, politically. It gave her an idea for an app.
Within a few months of the US presidential election, Kossarian had quit her job, recruited two co-founders, raised seed funding from friends and family and launched Magnify Progress. The app uses machine intelligence, high-level programming languages, and data science to educate users and spur activity in the democratic process.
“I want people to know they’re not powerless,” Kossarian told PCMag. “Magnify Progress is about taking action and starting as soon as possible.”
Users log in to Magnify Progress (Android, iOS) with Facebook and input their ZIP code. To help create a political profile of sorts for the AI algorithms to analyze, they browse tags to add issues of interest like climate change, healthcare, and hurricane relief.
Magnify Progress then builds out a feed with details about people’s local, state, and congressional representatives and provides a one-click option to add those lawmakers’ phone numbers to the app user’s contacts.
“At any moment, if you decide you’re really angry about something and want to call your representative, you can. The number is right there,” Kossarian pointed out.
Before you call, you can familiarize yourself with your representatives’ voting history. Magnify Progress can also help unpack the language behind complicated legislation by breaking it down into issue-based tags, and showing which Facebook friends have already taken action on an issue.
Users can post, comment, and react; follow any representative, bill, cause, or user. The app also incorporates some gamification, encouraging users to invite their friends and rewarding people with badges as friends take action.
“At Harvey Mudd I felt that I’d found my people, especially because of the way everyone cared so much about what they were working on and how the school provided really good opportunities for outreach,” she says. “But when I left for graduate school at Northwestern, I found it got a lot harder to locate volunteer efforts, especially those which didn’t require a long commitment or a specific time when I knew I’d be working. So that’s when I built my first app.”
Kossarian scraped websites to gather available data for local volunteer opportunities and began coding: her idea blossomed into a place where people could find issues they cared about, select an organization and time slot, and get involved. She used the same principles when developing her political activist app.
The Magnify Progress team consists of Kossarian and two others, all of whom have solid developer and product lead experience. They use GraphQL (a query language for application programming interfaces), Elasticsearch (Java-based search engine), Python (high-level programming language) and React, because they didn’t want to build native apps for each mobile platform from scratch.
“We want people to start where they are, to suggest actions that they can do right now,” she said. “For example, if they’re really concerned about climate change, Magnify Progress will suggest they start by planting a tree, stop using water bottles and cut meat out of their diet for one day a week.”
Where AI Meets Activism
The Open Government movement requires most federal agencies and states to open up their massive databases but few are on the same platform, or even apply similar rules for understanding that data. To address this, the Magnify Progress team created scripts and pledges to provide the best data at the correct time, to the right user.
“For example,” explained Kossarian, “Some of the machine intelligence we’ve brought in includes making the connections between your representative, your interests (such as climate change) and the bills they’ve sponsored (which might hurt the climate), and then we surface that information higher in your feed so you can take action.”
Spending two and a half years at IBM Watson gave Kossarian not just solid technical experience, but valuable business skills as well.
“I joined IBM when they acquired a startup I was working at. My role as the product and technical lead was to figure out how the web crawler technology we’d created could be integrated into the larger IBM Watson platform,” said Kossarian. “The AI platform had just won Jeopardy by ingesting the whole of Wikipedia, so, using our technology, how smart could it become by reading the whole internet?
“We’ve applied this to Magnify Progress. Our platform reads everything out there in the political domain and brings that right back to the user, allowing them to take action.”
Next up, Kossarian wants Magnify Progress to become a go-to app for influential political activists by building an admin panel that will allow them to populate Magnify Progress with actions they know will appeal to their audiences. She sees this as a way to grow the service exponentially.
“Starting from zero and ramping up within this activism domain has been very intellectually stimulating,” she said. “I’m now mixing with a very impressive set of people without the usual competitiveness because we’re all working toward this common goal of making the world a better place. It gives me such hope. Our goal is to activate a new generation of activists.”
This article had been modified from a longer version, which appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Harvey Mudd Magazine.