On July 31, the state of Massachusetts signed into law a new tax on software services that was to raise revenue for transportation projects and education programs. Less than two months later, after intense criticism from technology firms that said the law would stifle innovation and cost jobs, lawmakers repealed the tax.
Estimating the financial impact of a new public policy is an uncertain science at best, even for the most experienced government official. But is it possible Massachusetts legislators could have avoided the software tax fiasco? What if they had the online simulator called Outline.com, which can project how proposed policy changes will affect the Commonwealth?
We’ll never know, for sure, but the Web-based application, which launches in January, uses various metrics to clearly visualize every aspect of a citizen’s relationship with the public sector. Using census numbers, IRS information and other public and internal data streams, the application can provide a user with a snapshot on how their policy ideas will play out before they are even formally proposed.
Outline.com builds off of Politify.us, an award-winning application that simulated the impacts of the Obama and Romney economic plans during the 2012 presidential campaign. Both applications were developed by Nikita Bier, CEO of Outline.com and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.
Bier explained that his goal with Outline.com was to create a program that makes government more agile and responsive toward what people actually need and want.
“Usually the way citizens think about things is that they make these demands like ‘I want more education spending or lower taxes’ and it is not very coherent because they don’t understand the trade-offs in these demands,” Bier said. “So I think this is the kind of tool that I think could be a channel for all of those issues.”
For example, if a sales tax hike is being considered, users of the application can zoom in on different cities and examine the impact the bump would have. A slider function allows someone to raise the tax in an area and calculate it against the spending patterns of residents in a particular zip code.
While the application is being developed for use by state officials in Massachusetts, it will also be accessible to citizens. When a person visits the site, they’d login with their Facebook or LinkedIn account and the system would authenticate approximately where a person is located.
If the user has an idea regarding the state budget, they can adjust the individual line items and calculate would happen across the region. The idea can be saved and then promoted through social media or embedded into blogs.
Although the state and Outline.com are still working out the technical details, Massachusetts will be able to view popular citizen-created budgets and scenarios as well as comments from users. The hope is that the increased activity leads to productive dialogue between the state and residents.
Bier felt because the Internet can make almost anything go viral quickly, the way government operates could potentially be revolutionized by the application.
“There is this prospect of policy making being shortened from six-month cycles to possibly weekly cycles,” he said. “Policies can be created in shorter periods and implemented in shorter periods and government can behave more like a private sector entity in a sense that it is highly responsive to its environment.”
Work on Outline.com began in January and went through six different interface designs before one was settled on. Bier said that he hired some of the best user interface experts in the Bay Area to put forward something that is usable by most everyone.
Individuals concerned with just a state budget can stay at a fairly simple level on the site. But if a user wants to drill deeper into each state spending area, they can do that, and see the impact in their local region.
That led to challenges, however. Bier recalled an early concern was how they would account for the financial effects when one policy decision feeds into another. For example, if you spend more on education, can you pay less for prison incarceration because educated people likely to commit less crimes?
The Outline.com development team is busy trying to find a middle ground between trying to account for those types of policy issues and having solid reasoning behind all the forecast models the application will produce. Bier’s team has been working with economists from President Obama’s cabinet and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to find out how policy issues get allocated across different populations.
Bier called it “the biggest area of ambiguity” but said it was the most exciting part about Outline.com’s development because it’ll ultimately lead to more rational decision making.
If successful, Massachusetts likely won’t be the only state deploying Outline.com in the future. Bier said that 10 other states inquired about doing something similar.
(By Brian Heaton)