There’s a lot of political noise out there. Leave it to a group of teenagers to cut through it, and do it with technology.
The political app newcomer is PoliTalk USA, dreamed up in 2018 by 13 politically-minded high school kids at Westhill High School in Stamford, Connecticut. PoliTalk USA displays information about 2020 election candidates as simply and as objectively as possible. According to their website, they compiled more than 2,500 pieces of data for over 20 candidates in 15 policy categories, dividing this information up by candidate and by issue.
“Last year, at the start of my senior year, about a dozen students at my high school got together and decided we wanted to use the free time we had to do something productive and leave a legacy at our school and community,” founding member Christopher Matrullo tells Parentology. “I came up with the idea because it was clear after the 2016 election, conventional campaign methods were becoming less applicable, and there needed to be a better way for people to learn about the actual policies behind each candidate, instead of gravitating towards their over-the-top personas.“
Although the founding students have now graduated and scattered to universities across the country, a core group of six remain attached to the app, updating and maintaining it while attending their freshman year of college (Matrullo is at Georgetown University). It’s a challenge that might daunt a seasoned Silicon Valley dweller, but the team makes it work, and work well.
PoliTalk Is a True Team Effort
The app may have begun as an independent project, but quickly took on a life of its own as team members divided tasks. Much of it was learned on the fly.
The app was primarily developed by Kevin Zyskowski, a PoliTalk USA founding member who had experience coding apps with Apple’s programming language Swift. “He’d never created an app of PoliTalk USA’s complexity, but the overall design and development process went pretty smoothly,” Matrullo says.
That collaborative synergy continues through present day, with members sharing tasks and developing new skills.
“The skills of the overall group have grown tremendously, specifically with Katie Gaia, a current member who learned how to code in Swift this summer to help out with releasing updates for the app,” Matrullo explains.
As for Matrullo’s role, “My role specifically for the app was gathering information about the candidates and formatting it in an unbiased and consistent way. More recently, I’m developing our website politalkusa.org, which will include all of the information in the app to give people without iPhones access.”
PoliTalk Strives to Be Unbiased
In a field as crowded as, say, the presidential democratic race, most media outlets tend to focus on the most well-known candidates, playing off of renown rather than policy positions. Julien Matrullo (yes, Christopher Matrullo’s twin brother, also attending Georgetown), tells Parentology PoliTalk’s goal is all about the actual issues instead of personalities.
“We strive to keep the app unbiased by never advocating for or against a particular policy position or candidate,” Julien Matrullo explains. “To ensure this, we refrain from using language that might lead the user to a certain conclusion. For example, instead of stating that a candidate is for or against Obamacare, we use the name of the program’s parent bill, the Affordable Care Act.”
Other efforts to avoid bias include keeping prior achievements quiet; what matters to Gen Z is what the candidates are saying right now.
“We also refrain from including a candidate’s past achievements and positions because we believe what’s most important for any potential voter to know is what that candidate will do when they’re elected,” Julien Matrullo says. “Using past voting records and policy positions also isn’t fair to candidates who’ve had little to no opportunity to co-sponsor or write bills, such as Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson.”
As the election cycle progresses, app upkeep becomes an ever-evolving challenge.
“The most challenging thing about maintaining the app has been keeping track of all the new proposals released by candidates, and updating the app to include them,” Julien Matrullo says. “For the most part, media organizations focus their stories on the policies of top tier candidates. Swalwell’s mandatory gun buyback program and Jay Inslee’s climate plan heavily influenced many proposals released by leading candidates, but the media instead gave attention to the candidates who modeled after them.”
Julien Matrullo continues, “The media’s focus on candidates with name-recognition and high polling numbers is inherently biased because potential voters are only shown a sliver of what the field has to offer. It’s our job at PoliTalk USA to make sure every candidate is on a level playing field, and we strive to update the app to reflect the current views of every candidate.”
The App’s Flexibility Makes It a Natural for Gen Z and Beyond
The latest generation likes to customize. PoliTalk USA’s design makes it easy for young users to hone in on the issues that interest and excite them, without sifting through tons of information.
“With more than 2,500 pieces of data for over 20 candidates in 15 policy categories, PoliTalk USA divides this information up by candidate and by issue,” the website states. “If you’re interested in a certain candidate, you can find their profile on the main page. However, if a specific policy issue catches your interest, such as immigration, you can compare each candidates’ stances cross-sectionally. In addition, PoliTalk USA contains a glossary of terms that appear in the app that the user may not understand.”
This ease of use comes from app creators who understand their market completely.
“PoliTalk USA is designed for our generation — for all generations — because not only is it free, but it’s also easily navigable and aesthetically pleasing to use,” Julien Matrullo says. “On top of this, the app has a profile page for each candidate and policy issue so users can look at both a candidate individually and how they compare to other candidates on critical issues.”
And in the future? The app’s staff is scattered at universities ranging from Yale to Tulane. Naturally, the app has led at least one of them to think about a future that just might involve politics.
“I’m currently undecided in the McDonough School of Business,” Chris Matrullo says. “I wouldn’t rule out a future career in politics.”