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Berkeley-born policy simulator rebrands, expands

Politify, a Berkeley startup that created a public-policy simulator to tell people which presidential candidate’s tax and budget plan would be better for their households’ and neighborhoods’ financial bottom line, is back with a new name, a new round of funding and a contract with the state of Massachusetts.

What used to be Politify is now Outline. “Think of it as SimCity but for real life,” cofounder and CEO Nikita Bier said in a news release.

Outline’s budget simulator lets anyone to perform what-if analyses, such as manipulating tax rates or health care spending, and then see the projected impact to themselves and their communities. To construct the model, a team of data scientists and economists from MIT, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois spent the last year merging millions of anonymized federal tax returns and public Census records.

When an Outline user “endorses” a policy, that endorsement can be viewed by public officials who can then shape policy proposals according to citizen interest. Bier describes this as part of a broader vision called aided representation, where the software determines users’ interests and helps them advocate for those interests. “We wanted representation to be simple enough so that it’s part of your daily internet experience.”

They’ve just landed an $850,000 round of financing with participation from the Knight Foundation Enterprise Fund, Esther Dyson, and the Dorm Room Fund. And it appears to have been the successful bidder for a contract with Massachusetts to license the budget simulator.

More than 4 million people used Politify in 90 days last year to help them gauge President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s fiscal platforms.

“Politify was a litmus test that showed us Americans wanted to look at government empirically,” Bier said. “The difference is that Politify was about showing what government does — Outline is about showing what government can do.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • RR Senile Columnist

    Ooh la la!

  • JohnW

    I wish they would do this for California taxes (income, sales, property, business) and spending, including retirement benefits.

  • Alcoahead

    This would be great if low information voters voted with their wallets instead of their Bibles.

    But they don’t.

    Yet another solution in search of a problem — we see that in Silicon Valley every day…

  • RR Senile Columnist

    A concerned citizen writes:”I want to know how much of our tax dollars are wasted on baseless prosecutions that only underscore the public’s disgust with sensationalism in the media.” Yrs, etc., Orenthal S.