April 23, 2014

Alum's Election App Estimates Financial Impact on You, Your Community, the Nation

Polify Check Mark

While Americans have been known to vote against their economic self-interests, they can no longer plead ignorance: a Haas alum has made it as simple as a mouse click to find out exactly what each major presidential candidate means for our personal bottom lines—and those of our neighbors.

Politify, a streamlined web app created by Nikita Bier, BS/BA 12 (Bus./Poli. Sci.), and Jeremy Blalock, a UC Berkeley computer science and electrical engineering student, uses big data to cut through campaign rhetoric. Punch in your age, income, and number of dependents, and get an instant read on whether President Obama or President Romney would be better for your bank balance. You can customize your results with a few more data points, type in your zip code for a look at your neighborhood, and zoom out to get a national picture.

“Americans form political parties around social issues, but we took a look at the past few administrations and found that the president actually has very little impact on social issues,” says Bier. “The president is really good at one thing: fiscal policy. That is, taxes and spending. Since your financial status is directly linked to your well-being—quality of life, life expectancy, children’s education—we actually felt that it is everything.”

Bier and Blalock launched Politify as a personal tax calculator during primary season and then spent six months merging U.S. Census and IRS data with the two candidates’ published platforms, using standards developed by the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. They added the zip-code functionality when people told them they vote altruistically, rather than solely on self-interest. Since the election edition launched in August, Politify has generated more than 2.5 million forecasts for users, Bier says.

The app grew out of Bier’s senior thesis, which aimed to show how government policies have direct impacts on individual households. He grew interested in the subject after stints studying politics and tax systems in Paris and Copenhagen, where he noticed that European political parties were directly tied to class and employment. After he became interested in data visualization, he dropped the written thesis to build Politify.

Some of the results surprised Bier, who describes himself as a “radical moderate” and built the site to be nonpartisan. Politify concluded that Obama’s policies would directly benefit almost 70 percent of the country—although that depends on an individual's income level--and that Romney’s plan would add $566 billion to the deficit, compared with a $273 billion drop under Obama’s published plan.

“We were motivated to inform people, above all, and we achieved that mission,” Bier says. “This started as a crazy drawing on a napkin last year, and we now have a sophisticated data set of the entire U.S. economy. We are working now to reposition this beyond a seasonal tool, since it can be used to analyze any policy.”

Politify has been raking in awards and national media recognition. It won first place and $20,000 last spring in the Big Ideas@Berkeley innovation competition, and took first place last month in the Civic Data Challenge, sponsored by the National Conference on Citizenship with the Knight Foundation. The Sunlight Foundation also awarded the startup $15,000.

Bier and Blalock, whose effort has been joined by several Berkeley students, credit the Haas School's Lester Center for Entrepreneurship for ongoing mentoring. Berkeley public policy professor and former labor secretary Robert Reich and economics professor Emmanuel Saez are also serving as advisers.

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