You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

This Startup Is Like Google For Congress, And Legislators Love It

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 27/10/2015 Alexander Howard
QUORUM © Quorum QUORUM

When Rep. Kevin McCarthy expressed his love for Quorum at last week's Congressional Hackathon, he wasn't talking about getting the minimum number of legislators required for a vote.

The House Majority Leader was referring to the data he gets from Quorum Analytics, a D.C.-based startup that has changed how well legislators and influences understand power dynamics in Congress. The company has made a name for itself with data visualizations and insights about lawmakers, from determining how language choices relate to party to pointing out that Senate women get more done than men.  

If its founders' aspirations pan out, the service -- which scrapes and analyzes terabytes of data from government websites and social media -- won't just hold the attention of people in the Beltway. Aiming to expand Quorum to every state capital across the United States, they could eventually provide actionable intelligence for lobbyists, activists and legislative leaders all over the country. The service could also play a role in the 2016 elections, if it makes more of its insights available to the public, something it's considering doing. 

Co-founders Alex Wirth and Jonathan Marks started work on Quorum while they were still undergraduates at Harvard. Both have since graduated and moved down to D.C. to pursue the business full-time.

They're doing well: Quorum has scored loads of positive press for its data-driven approach to politics and has landed big clients around the Beltway and beyond that are willing and able to pay the $4,800 annual subscription fee. Both the Republican and Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives are clients, as are D.C. consulting firm Glover Park Group, conservative political advocates Club for Growth and at least four Fortune 500 companies, including General Motors.

Unlike scores of other data science startups, Quorum has taken no venture capital funding. Wirth says they've bootstrapped the startup that way.

Quorum isn’t the first to sell data-driven insights about Congress to lobbyists: CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg have been in that business for years.

The service's secret sauce lies in its database and the technology that its developers use to find signal in the vast noise of press releases, legislative actions and social media. For instance, it can be used to narrow in on a certain area of legislation -- energy, say -- and see which members are most prominent in this area, which get the most support for their proposals and more. 

"One of the interesting things that we can do is sum up the data that's there," Wirth told The Huffington Post. "The Library of Congress goes through and tags every single bill related to a specific issue area. We're able to use those tags as metadata, determining which members are most active on a specific area, in terms of bill sponsored, bills cosponsored or amendments adopted."

The service also ranks members of Congress on their effectiveness, assigning them a "Quorum Score" based on their success at getting bills co-sponsored by other legislators. Wirth declined to share which members of Congress have the highest overall scores, but he did say who has top marks on the issue of energy legislation: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Ed Royce, Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. John Hoeven. 

Essentially, Quorum is trying to do for Congress what Google does for web searches. The seminal idea behind Google was figuring out which pages to show you for a given search by analyzing which pages were highly cited. Likewise, Quorum's founders have figured out how to pull from a vast amount of data available at Congress.gov to show users which legislators are most effective.

"We use a variation of [Google's] PageRank algorithm and co-sponsorships to show which members have the greatest ability to build support for their legislation," said Wirth. "So, if you're looking for a legislative champion who's going to get a lot of other highly influential members to sign on, this is a great way to see who are the very big players."

Quorum's data analytics can also show how the power dynamics in Congress change from year to year, as depicted in the visualization below, or how effective a given chamber is in moving legislation. (If Rep. Paul Ryan is elected speaker of the House, Quorum is going to need to update this GIF.)

This kind of data analysis can help lawmakers understand how efficiently their chamber is working. For instance, Rep. McCarthy said last Friday that more bills are moving through committee in the 114th Congress, as compared to past sessions, which he says means that the proposed laws better reflect the knowledge and expertise of the members of Congress assigned to them. How did he know? Quorum data.

"Certainly, with someone like the House Majority Leader putting a bigger focus on data, people are beginning to talk about it differently and use the numbers to reference what's going on in Congress," Wirth said. "Obviously, our hope is that this becomes part of the 'must-haves' with communicating about how this Congress is different, measuring not just talking points but using data to prove it."

While most of what Quorum produces is private -- remember, it's an expensive subscription-based product -- Wirth said that someday the service might publish metrics showing how influential or effective Congressmen are for the public to see. Currently, Quorum releases some of the insights from its data to the public, like this graphic on how Congress reacts to mass shootings:

If the service starts publicly publishing its ratings, there's a good chance that more members of Congress and state legislators will start paying more attention to their Quorum Score than their Klout Score, which purports to show their influence on social networks. 

"Members are definitely interested in the statistics overall," he said. "We don't have a plan to release them in bulk, publicly. It's something that we might consider next summer, before the elections, when it might be of interest to the public, as they are making decisions."

Wirth says that only way elected officials will be able to improve their Quorum Score, however, is to be more effective legislators.

"The Quorum Score, from how it's calculated and designed, is really hard to game," Wirth said. "It's not something as simple as saying a lot of bills don't have cosponsors on them and it will change. "

If Quorum does make more of its insights public, it won't just be delivering business intelligence for elites regarding the progress of bills they care about.  In the process, its data scientists are mapping and measuring the tacit lines of influence in every state legislature in the nation. That kind of insight would show how power is being used, by whom and, perhaps most tantalizingly, for whom.

One day, Quorum might even correlate how power is being used with other kinds of information.

"The dream is that eventually we'd like to be able to bring campaign finance data into the platform and put that together side by side with the legislative data, so that you could actually see and start to show how money has an influence on politics," said Wirth.

Now, that would be big data.

More from Huffington Post

The Huffington Post
The Huffington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon