• Tech
  • Voting

Silicon Valley Thinks Politics Is Broken. So It’s Building Apps

9 minute read

When the tech industry gathered at an annual awards ceremony in San Francisco on Monday night, the digs at President Trump—and tech executives who have been meeting with him—came early and often.

By the time the ceremony was halfway over, the industry insiders who had been presenting and receiving awards had referred to the 45th President as one of America’s greatest trolls and the puppet of a white supremacist. Actress and comedian Chelsea Peretti, who hosted the event known as the Crunchies, started off by calling him “a little more evil” than tech “villains” like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who recently said he would resign from a business advisory board serving Trump after his employees repeatedly asked him to quit.

It’s no secret that the Bay Area—where roughly 75% of people voted for Hillary Clinton—is upset about the way the election turned out. Workers in Silicon Valley go into offices each day at globalized companies that proudly depend on skilled immigrants from all over the world. And Trump’s recent executive orders regarding immigration and refugees are deeply at odds with that ethos.

But amidst the name-calling and line-drawing at the awards ceremony also came calls for the industry to take action that jibes with its oft-repeated promise: that technology can and should fix problems for everyone, conservatives included.

“We tackle hard problems, we plow through walls, that’s what we do for a living,” said Twilio’s Jeff Lawson as he accepted an award for being Founder of the Year. “And the current political climate requires us to do this and tackle some new problems like we never have before.” He asked the audience to remember that the enemy is not red states (or blue states) but “people who profit by dividing us.”

Lawson also said that Twilio, a billion-dollar communications software company, was already putting its coders to work on one snag that his contacts in government had flagged as a pressing issue: how awkward or difficult it can seem for citizens to connect with their representatives in Congress in order to advocate for whatever issues they care about. Announcing a project called Voices for Democracy, he said the company wants to partner with developers to build apps that streamline that process.

Twilio tells TIME that the company is committed to “generating 100 million connections between constituents and representatives” and that the effort will be a “priority” for funding through its social impact arm, Twilio.org. As he finished his remarks, Lawson implored the hundreds of hackers and entrepreneurs whose attention he had to join them in their app-building effort: “Let’s try to use our power of technology to connect people, not to divide them.”

He’s not the only one singing that song. Others who work in Silicon Valley say that tech workers’ angst over the election, whether it be because they have liberal positions on healthcare or climate change, is being overtaken by their insatiable desire to fix things. After all, people here are supposed to thrive on systemic flaws and friction, which the American political system does not lack. Andy Spahn, a prominent political consultant in Los Angeles, describes Northern California as a place that would “still would rather tweak an algorithm than write a check,” and there are plenty of issues with the political process that technology might help more than donations would: the spread of fake news, the existence of social media silos, flawed polling predictions, the lack of enthusiasm and transparency that contributes to poor voter turnout.

One person championing the fix-it charge is Jesse Pickard, CEO at a startup called Elevate that makes brain-training apps. The election happened on his birthday and he and his friends were so upset about the results that no one even touched the cake, he says. But he woke up the next day feeling like there was something to do. “It seemed like there was all this immense talent among people who can bring new products to life,” Pickard says, “and all of that effort was going into angrily tweeting or posting to Facebook.”

So he organized a purposefully nonpartisan hackathon, planning for 20 or 30 people to attend the marathon coding session at Elevate’s San Francisco HQ—and about 300 people showed up. “It finally clicked for the tech community that we’re actually going to have to get off of our butts and put our skills to work,” he says. Soon he had helped create an organization called Debug Politics to host two more, including one where the chief technology officer of Hillary Clinton’s campaign served as one of the judges. There are plans to host another hackathon in Los Angeles in April, Pickard says, and every two months after that.

The fact that Clinton’s CTO was one of the judges is evidence that these efforts may struggle to overcome their left-leaning roots in their pursuit of civic betterment, however loudly their leaders label them as nonpartisan. (“We are not an anti-Trump organization,” says Pickard.) So are some of the ideas that have come out of the hackathons so far, like a product proposed in New York in late January that would tackle fake news from the right by flooding it with more fake news from the left.

Yet many could be also tools that anyone could use, even if they are more likely to attract Democratic users at this moment in history. One of them is called Spectrum. The idea: When you’re reading an article, it will tell you how right- or left-leaning that publication tends to be—using data collected by organizations like Pew Research—and then offer another article on the same subject from the other side. (It’s still in development.)

Another is HelloGov, which aims to help people with big social media followings activate their followers in campaigns to call Congress. People have talked about developing bubble-bursting chat tools to connect people living in the “two Americas” too, Pickard says, like matching up random people in rural and urban areas so they can ask each other why they think the way they do.

As workers suddenly out of a job in Washington search for new employment, a steady stream is poised to end up in Silicon Valley, so these collaborations will keep coming. Matt Mahan, CEO of a two-year-old startup called Brigade, says he gets about a dozen resumes each week from people who used to work for Obama or Hillary Clinton. His San Francisco-based company was founded with the intent of “disrupting the political system in a good way” and develops tools that aim to make it easier to engage in the political process. For the last election, the company launched a social platform that allowed people to bring their voter profiles online, preview digital version of their ballots, pledge their votes and connect with others doing the same. And more than 200,000 registered voters used it, with the base actually skewing conservative.

Among them were many registered Democrats who were pledging to vote for Trump. Looking back over the data after the election, Brigade realized the startup could have made more accurate predictions than pollsters did about some swing areas that would ultimately go to the Republican candidate. The belief that data should matter most, says Mahan, is a key part of what has driven people in tech to turn their brain power toward addressing political issues in the wake of the election. “We put so much faith in data,” he says. “Ideology is sort of the antithesis of the mindset in Silicon Valley.”

How much tech thinking will bleed into coming debates over policy issues those people care about—be it tax policy, net neutrality or patent reform—remains to be seen, especially as executives take stands against Trump’s decisions and fight over whether it is a moral action to accept a seat at his table. One award-winner at the Crunchies stated that anyone working with Trump, even in the name of trying to use access to affect his thinking, was “on the wrong side of history.”

And while some call for Silicon Valley to go high, other elites are focusing their efforts on designing underground bunkers for themselves, should disaster be nigh. At the Crunchies, Peretti called them out for looking inward. “Where my doomsday preppers at? I just want to see if, like, you’ll let me crash on your bunker couch in the end times,” she said. “Or you could just fix public schools right now.” The line got one of the biggest claps during her monologue.

Mahan, who founded Brigade with billionaire Sean Parker, was one of many among tech executives who signed a joint statement opposing Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Yet the data that he uses in his pitches to venture capitalists highlights how much potential there is for technology to make people of all stripes feel like their votes matter—if these apps and tools can make it easier and more attractive to cast those ballots in a way that feels meaningful. Engagement is one chronically problematic area that can keep disrupters in the middle ground, after an election in which about 40% of eligible voters did not turn out.

The spiel goes like this, based on research that Brigade commissioned: There are more than 500,000 elected offices in America, from the local school board to the halls of Congress. For the average person, that breaks down to about 40 officials who are supposed to represent their interests and who are making some kind of decision on their behalf. And while presidential elections might make people feel small, about 40% of those 500,000 races are decided by around 1,000 votes.

“That’s something we can wrap our heads around,” he says, “and feel empowered to do something about.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com