So this week I am going to bridge two subjects I like to cover in this blog. I have the pleasure of reviewing two separate apps that both provide news and information about Congress. Both apps have their pros and cons so in the end whichever one you choose to use is left up to your personal preference. They really are decent apps though. I am going to start with a review of the app Congress.
“Congress” is an app developed by Sunlight Foundation. I have been using it for a few months now so I am much more familiar with it and to be honest, I prefer this app. I will say however it is not for everybody. It has a minimalist layout that I really prefer.
Upon opening the app you are immediately provided with a list of upcoming bills and resolutions. It provides the index number of the item as well as the title. The menu to the left also lets you explore more bills as well as track Congressmen, the status of votes, and many other things. You can also open the Bill menu and view active bills being considered
When opening information on a bill it provides you with the title, the congressman who submitted it, a log of changes and a summary of the Bills Contents. By pressing the 3 vertical dots in the top right corner you can access a link to the exact text of the proposed bill. The app also gives you the option to share it or save the bill to your favorites so you can follow its progress.
The app also lets you search for your own congressional representatives and create a favorites list of congressional representatives you want to follow. The bios for each congressman contain links to their social media accounts and their personal website, a map of their jurisdiction, as well as the phone number for their DC offices and a shortcut to the pages for the committees they serve on. It also lets you track the votes of the congressman you are following.
“Congress” also provides a schedule of committee hearings as well as a list of the committees and the congressmen on them. This can help you keep track of what committees are doing since this doesn’t always make the news or get widespread attention
My favorite thing about “Congress” is that it allows you to see a log of events taking place on the House and Senate floors. For some, this makes for very dry and boring reading, however, I find it important to know how they are using their time while on the taxpayer’s dime. It also is the next best thing to actually watching C-Span.
The downside to this app is that it is a little glitchy. It also isn’t really the best for everyday users as it is heavy on legalese. Unless you took Poli-Sci in college or went to law school you may become easily by descriptions of regulations and such things.
So to summarize the Pros and Cons:
- Detailed information on Bills and Committees
- Minimalist Layout
- Log of events from the House and Senate
- Ability to form custom list of Congressmen you want to follow\
- Optional Push Notifications
- Glitches and Lags
- Heavy on Legalese
Editors Note: Since this article posted I have noticed a disturbing trend in the news pieces this app chooses to share. Namely that they share click-bait titles designed to cater to the perceptions of Liberal users. This does not affect my opinion of the apps ability for people to share opinions on public policy or to contact their representatives, however it does call into question again the impartiality of the writers of the app. I would encourage the writers of the app to steer away from this behavior and question the way they word things.
“Countable” is an app I recently found out about. It is an app designed to simplify politics. They try to make the issues understandable and simplify connecting people to their representatives. Now initially upon reading reviews about the app, I had some major concerns. It was encouraging when I actually got a response after reaching out to the PR department for countable. I brought up some of my bigger concerns and here are the responses from the CEO of Countable, Bart Meyers:
Q: My first question is about Bias. Many reviews claim that your app is biased. Out of the complaints to this effect which I read over, 4 of them claimed there was a left wing Bias. One did claim a pro-Trump bias but in light of the other reviews and recent behavior from former Hillary supporters I dismissed that as an ignorant reaction to hearing an opposing opinion. And one of the reviews with claims of left wing bias admitted he might have been reacting to other commenters. But yet another review claims the list of political organizations you connect people with has very few conservative groups listed. Of course Bias is a serious accusation, so how would you respond to this claims and how do you ensure the information on your application remains unbiased? What efforts do you make to market this app to people on all levels of the political spectrum?
A: Other than reviews, on our facebook page, and on Twitter, we get people saying we’re too left leaning, and then those who say we’re a right-wing trap. It’s actually pretty even. It just depends on what bills or articles people might be looking at. For instance, it is pretty easy for someone fairly liberal to look at a bill that would kill the EPA, and think we’re too far to the right, because we don’t write up the bill in a way that gives all the points opposed that they want to see. We actually have writers that check each other, and have various personal political views, to ensure that we’re avoiding bias. But, naturally, if anyone feels like something is biased, we want to hear from them on what, specifically, they felt was too far right or left. If they have a good point, we’ll change the writeup, absolutely.
Q: My second question has to do with bugs in the app. There seems to be persistent complaints of the application not keeping people logged in. There are basic complaints that the app makes it complicated to earmark information or articles. So my next question is how often do your developers read over reviews to figure out what needs to be fixed?
A: We want to give our users the best experience possible. We watch our reviews in real time. Any time a negative review is written, it’s felt by the team. We haven’t met our commitment to our users recently with the surge of new use. We now have those issues in hand and are eager to get more feedback. We’re continually rolling out new features and fixes with a new version of our iOS and Android apps in the works.
Q: My third Question is about information security and hacking. One review claims that you mine peoples personal information. He also claims that a email he sent to a congressman in your app was rewritten to fit a liberal point on view. Now to be very honest these are wild claims, but in a time when cyber security is in the headlines how do you respond to these accusations? What efforts do you take to secure the information of your users?
A: We take our users privacy very seriously. We do not mine or sell users information. At sign up, users can enter where they live, so we can match them up with their Representative or Senator. Messages are sent immediately and automatically after you write them or vote on a bill. Our lawmakers use legacy software tools to sort the emails that come through. It’s possible that the lawmakers software could mis-classify a message. For this reason, we encourage our users to send a video message in addition that carries the full weight of their message.
Q: My last question goes back to the matter of Bias. One review accuses you of bias because of ties to NPR. Now I did check your website and while there is a former NPR reporter working there, I can see no solid affiliation to NPR. I am concerned though because your staff lacks diversity. All of your staff listed are affiliated with the Democratic Party or with left leaning media outlets. There are no Republicans or Libertarians. Is there any way you can explain to me why there are no conservative leaning members of your team? Has any effort been made to reach out to or hire somone with conservative views?
A: Our team includes people from both sides of the aisle who believe in our mission that everyone should have a voice and be able to “get the facts”. In fact, our best “defense” against bias is that anyone can use Countable to have a voice and express their opinion. If you think we’ve got it wrong, correct us in a comment or opinion. You have the power.
Our team includes, or has included, many notable conservatives including Ed Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Marc Shot, Trump’s Legislative Affairs Coordinator, Jon Runyan, the former Eagle and Congressman.
We don’t have any ties to NPR. We are, however, thrilled to bring aboard Andrea Seabrook, as our managing editor. Andrea is an award-winning reporter in DC, who has a real talent for making information and bills a lot more accessible to non-wonks. We actually do have libertarian-leaning conservatives working for us, including our chief writer, Eric Revell.
Now I didn’t like the answers to all these questions personally (Like Andrea Seabrook. Ugh), but it is encouraging to see a company willing to reach out to people. They also cleared up my concerns about bias as well as information security. So with all of that out of the way, I began a week-long evaluation period of the app. I was reasonably pleased with what I found as well.
The first thing I noticed about countable is that it seems to rely more on news based presentation of legislative issues rather than just raw information and events. When you first open the app you get a news feed which shows you current issues.
In these news stories, it allows you to read opinions for and against a piece of legislation and then make a vote on whether you are for or against this issue which shows up on your profile. You can also publically comment on issues sort of like social media.
The app enables you to follow key political figures as well as the issues that concern you. It also provides you with ways to connect to non-profits that advocate for causes you believe in. Some of them I recognized, for example, I had an ex who worked at No Labels.
Now when you first sign up for the app it asks you for your zip code and then instantly adds your congressional representatives to your follow list. (whether you want to follow them or not) Countable provides you with a more diverse set of options for contacting your congressmen including email, fax, phone, and the app allows you to send a video message to your congressmen. It doesn’t tell you what committees they serve on.
Now there are some downsides. For me it is the lack of detailed information, however, most would find that to be a Pro. Another goes back to one of my initial concerns of bias in a way. One review complained that most of the comments were from biased liberals and that he believed that was the general makeup of the app. Well, that apparently could be attributed to BOTs, programs that run automated tasks. In this case, it looks like someone programmed a BOT to repeatedly post inaccurate remarks disparaging the new health care bill. Obviously, this is not something Countable can really totally prevent. They were however extremely grateful that I brought this to their attention which is another great thing about the app.
Here are my Pros and Cons for Countable:
- Lush layout
- Simple and easy to understand information
- Provides a number of ways to contact your representatives in congress
- Very responsive technical support
- Highly interactive and allows you to share opinions
- Small BOT problem
- Lack of detailed information on committees
- Sends e-mail notifications rather than push notifications
So both of these apps have their good qualities and bad ones. Countable is simple to understand and their responsiveness and willingness to answer questions definitely scored them points in my book. I would definitely suggest it for someone who wants to get involved in the political process but isn’t a political or legal expert. I personally prefer Congress for its minimalist layout and its detailed information but its glitches are extremely frustrating. Both of these apps, however, are very enjoyable in their own rights. I recommend trying them both and seeing which suits you better. As for a final determination though, I would say based on the way it simplifies information that Countable is probably the preferred app for most users.