Democracy is very much alive—we hope!—but government officials still often doesn’t know how constituents truly feel. A UNC student-founded startup aims to create a solution for this problem.
UNC rising senior Tai Huynh got the idea for Acta the way many founders do—during a conversation with a friend over a problem he witnessed. The computer science major talked to his friend about how local government impacts our lives so much, but many don’t really pay attention to it.
“Coming to Carolina and studying computer science, seeing how technology has transformed so many fields, but it doesn’t seem that government has really had that transformation yet,” Huynh said. “The general idea of this really came about, like, ‘How can we leverage technology to improve local government and outcomes from that, specifically more participation and involvement from the public in local government?’”
Huynh formed a four-person core team for Acta. The startup has now gone through several pivots, officially incorporating in February 2018. First, the team built a mobile app platform to increase participation in local government, which transformed into an email communications platform. Huynh said they realized they were seeking to solve two distinct problems: trying to reach residents on behalf of local governments, as well as analyzing the information they received from these residents. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the second issue, becoming the data analysis SaaS platform that Acta is today.
In its upcoming pilot version, Acta will help local governments analyze survey results about public initiatives. The Acta model uses natural language processing that looks at data for feedback, trends and sentiment in order to provide a clear picture to the government about how its community feels about a certain policy, said UNC rising senior Pavani Peri, an Acta team member focused on the startup’s social impact.
“The whole idea is that at the end of the day, the council or key decision-makers will be able to have data they can clearly understand to make the most informed decision,” said Peri. “Then residents will directly be able to see how their input is factored into the end result and decision-making.”
Acta, which will operate on a monthly subscription business model, is in talks with three undisclosed potential local government pilot sites. Huynh said Acta owes some of this progress to the accelerator Launch Chapel Hill. As a startup in this summer’s cohort, he said the team has been able to focus wholly on Acta while benefiting from the mentors that Launch Chapel Hill connects startups with.
“They’ve just been phenomenal in helping us fine-tune all these different levers in the company,” Huynh said. “I think that’s what allowed us to make so much progress so fast.”
Back at school Acta has been recognized by the Heel Tank Pitch Competition and the Robert E. Bryan Fellowship, garnering a few thousand dollars in funding.
Democratizing Access And Input
With experience studying linguistics and working on food security with the local government in her hometown of Indianapolis, Peri said she can see the effect of language—and who’s using it—in determining which opinions town councils listen to. Acta can override this by allowing officials to focus on clear data during local government decision-making processes. This will give residents transparency in how their input is factored in, she said.
“You see how language impacts the way town councils and city councils make decisions,” she said. “I saw the type of public input they hear—when there’s time for public comment in those long, long meetings—and who they decide to pay attention to. Oftentimes it was the loudest voices in a room, or the voices that have more access to county government or city government. I hope through this more digitized manner and more of a data-driven model, we’ll be able to provide local governments with the tools to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
Although Acta has changed forms and names since Huynh had the idea his first year at UNC, Huynh still hopes Acta can increase participation in local governments—now by enabling elected officials to make smarter decisions from Acta’s data analysis.
“Hopefully as a result of that and residents seeing exactly how their input is or is not incorporated into those decisions, they’ll be more inclined to participate,” Huynh said. “Our goal is to drive better local government and more participation.”