In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, app developer Leo Sussan What's unhappy and looking for a way to become more politically active. So he volunteered for a long-shot congressional candidate, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in New York City.
Since he was a full-time employee at a real estate startup, Sussan offered his programming skills to the campaign during his off-hours. Ocasio-Cortez elected. The app he and his small team created, Reach, reimagined the way volunteers found other sympathetic voters.
Historically, political voters through a process called "canvassing," or making direct contact with people door-to-door. Apps typically facilitated this process by giving volunteers in the field an easy way to access a list of voters compiled by the Democratic Party.
But Susan's app ̵
Now, using Reach, volunteers have been able to read and write on the street, at the mall, or basically anywhere they could think of, and log their interactions. Canvassers were no longer confined to a Democrat in the past or registered with the Democratic Party. Instead, they could add new names and contact information to the list on the spot. Plus, Reach worked on all the major platforms including iOS, Android, and web browsers.
When Ocasio-Cortez faced off against 10-year incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primaries in June, the app is a pivotal role in her upset victory, according to Sussan. Ocasio-Cortez's campaign full-time as the technology director.
Ocasio-Cortez's victory over Republican Anthony Pappas Sussan can rest.
Can you tell me more about the app you created, Reach?
We built Reach as a tool for ourselves. We were looking for something that would make a difference. Reach let us canvas and record responses at community events, on the streets, on subways, in taxis, and even online. Volunteers set up tables on the street and would like to talk to each other on their way to work, in Ubers and on the subway.
How do you get it?
Traditional door-to-door canvassing methods limit who you talk to and where you can effectively collect data. One of the main ways that canvassing is broken is that it's list-driven. Those lists are generated based on what a campaign has promised. A major variable is or not they are voted in the last election. What ends up happening is a lot of voters who are already supporters get knocks on their door.
Cortez's upset primary win against Joe Crowley?
After we won, we looked back, and Reach accounted for about 10 percent of our totally positive IDs, or in other words, pledged voters. Reach was only deployed in the last three weeks before the primary. Crowley and Ocasio was about 15 percent. So, I'd like to think that there is an impact, but you can not see who votes for who.
Reach is now being deployed in campaigns other than Ocasio-Cortez's.
A lot of Ocasio's volunteers went on to work on other campaigns and were like, 'Why are we using this old piece of software?' And why can not we use Reach? The problem at the time was the solution was not built to scale. It was just made to solve our own [campaign’s] problems. We had to rebuild it.
About 20 campaigns ended up using it. 35 campaigns.
We ran a beta in the final days of a campaign in early August. The results were insane. We ended up accounting for 10 percent of IDs in just the three days that we deployed in the field with volunteers. That was unexpected.
About 20 campaigns ended up using it. We had a waiting list of something like 35 campaigns. The next step for us is to bring as many folks as humanly possible while maintaining control of the technology, making sure that only the right candidates get access to it.
How do you determine which campaigns to work with?
Everyone who built Reach, and there's about seven of us totally plus a few others who contributed some code to it. If 60 percent or more of us say yes, then we'll deploy it for you. We've turned down a couple of campaigns. Because each voter file in each state is different, we have to build each new data loader for each state.
Our calculus that goes into it is "The politics of a candidate who is requesting it? and B) Given that they do, can we build the loader in time to have an impact, and if not, should we re-prioritize and focus on what we are doing in the country?
with were long shots. And all but one were running against incumbents.
What if a canvasser uses Reach comes across who is not registered to vote?
Because it's based on the voter file, you were not able to search it yet
Can you tell me more about Reach and use it as an online get-out-the-vote tool?
We are working on using social media as a way of generating IDs. We're taking some of the folks that consistently interact with us on social media platforms like Twitter and finding them in the voter file and marking them.
What do you think of Google, Facebook, and other major tech companies' roles in the political arena, especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal?
As global monolithic entities, these companies have a huge impact on what our politics look like. They need to do better. Companies as distinct entities have one job and one job only. But these are parts of companies that are working on these companies. Those individual parts are getting experience and access to valuable resources that they would not have before. As a result of this and this kind of globalization, the process is becoming increasingly involved in the development of new and better solutions for progressive campaigns.
Any Final Thoughts on the Future?
What I can say with certainty is that my future has been written for me. Where we need to be.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.