It’s a straightforward idea: There’s loads of public information about what’s going on in legislative action, and people need to have a simple way to track it, pull information together, and use it for their own decision making.
Wait a sec: All this information is publicly available, right? Why would anybody pay to get it?
That’s a darned good question.
As it turns out, most people won’t pay. After all, how much do we want to really follow the ins and outs of every bill as it weaves its way through Congress or the state legislatures?
But imagine that there’s a particular issue that you’re heavily engaged in, and you very much want to know what’s happening even on a daily basis. Here in Colorado it might be gun control, marijuana, gay rights, transportation – almost anything. If you want to engage effectively in the process, you quickly realize that your most scarce resources are time and attention. Paying a little money to someone who can help you focus on the right things at the right time – it’s well worth it.
I had a chance to talk with Will Hickey, one of the principles of this business. It was quite informative, and I was struck by his deep passion for improving the quality of our democratic process. This is no short term exercise, either – they’ve been in business for three years and are sticking closely to this same mission.
We are building products and websites to spark a renaissance in American politics, leveraging the internet to create the dialog so desperately needed amongst our elected officials, legislative professionals, and everyday citizens. — from their About page
This company is very smart to realize that giving away valuable services will help them over the long term. First, it supports their vision of opening up the democratic process – after all, it’s not very “open” when only the rich can afford it.
Second, this is a new kind of service that most people have never seen before. So the company is growing its future customer base by educating them about the value of this information, and even how the legislative process works.
Third, it’s the fundamental values of how they want to run this business. Remove barriers, make information freely available, and be generous.
But remember that this is a for-profit company. They can’t sustain that largesse without making some revenue. So they have a range of paid services which they’re working to expand. These deliver high value to those who want to actively engage in the legislative process and who can see the value of timely and accurate information. That may only be a few percent of their overall unpaid subscriber base, but it’s sufficient to let the company grow.
Here’s an interesting idea for those of you in an information-delivery business: Bill Track 50 is very open with letting people link to its database. Recently a prominent politician in Texas tweeted out a link to a bill on the site, which resulted in over 500 hits in just a single day to that one bill – all because people could immediately read what she had pointed to.
That’s much different than most news and information sites which are increasingly putting access behind a paywall. Or media companies which are aggressively pursuing lawsuits against copyright infringement.
Clearly, in this case, the information is meant to be free – in both senses of the word. That’s how a democracy is built. Bill Track 50 is doing its part to help us make a more open government.