Student Start-Up Series: Undergrads Build App to Drive Political Activism

Gather developers convene at the New Founders Conference in Chicago.

In our increasingly chaotic political world, more and more politically motivated students have to grapple with a deceptively simple question: How do I get involved?

Luckily, two UChicago students have a plan to make activism as accessible and intuitive as possible. Alex Swerdlow and Ryan Kuang, both third-years in the College, created Gather, described by Swerdlow as “the world’s first centralized platform for political activism.”

By downloading the recently released Gather app, aspiring activists can select from among 29 diverse political issues—from gun violence to environmental protection —and then have Gather recommend ideologically aligned advocacy groups to join or upcoming events or rallies to attend. One of the long-term goals for Gather is to provide more opportunities for spreading the word, whether that involves sharing an article found on Gather to other social media profiles or sharing an event to a community of like-minded activists within the app itself.

“What we’re trying to do is really to get people together…that’s our focus,” Kuang said.

“We know from different interest group theory that it’s mostly based on one person’s involvement with another individual that gets them to act. So we’re building sharing functionality... It’s instrumental in how we think about our product design and how we want the app to work,” Swerdlow added.

Created as a part of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship’s New Venture Challenge—where Gather stood out and placed third out of all competitors—the App has undergone a number of changes since its initial foundation. Originally imagined as a platform to aid organizers of political conferences, the Gather creators decided to expand and focus on political activism more generally.

“We decided that there was just a huge opportunity in the political space. To focus [solely] on conferences wouldn’t have the big social impact that we were interested in, like you can have in politics,” Swerdlow said.

Gather’s ambitious expansion was aided by a $3,000 stipend from the Polsky Center, awarded as part of Gather’s third-place prize. That initial fund allowed Swerdlow and Kuang to get incorporated as a business, create a downloadable app on both Google Play and the Apple app store, develop a marketing strategy, and design an initial website. The Polsky Center’s continued involvement has also allowed Gather to expand beyond its initially modest scope, connecting Gather to relevant press contacts and even providing complimentary tickets for Swerdlow and Kuang to attend the New Founders Conference, a prominent convention for civic technology leaders across the nation.

Gather is working with six local civic organizations, including ACA Consumer Advocacy, a group that seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, and Chicago Animal Save, a local group advocating for animal rights. As part of their goal to “go deep” into the Chicago political world, Gather is constantly reaching out to local civic organizations and activists in an effort to structure their app around needs on the ground. A tip from UChicago alums even led the Gather team on an unexpected journey to meet with dedicated parent-teacher organizations across the city.

“What we’ve done so far is reach out to a lot of organizations mainly here in Chicago, really trying to understand and speak with the activists there. What would you like to see on a platform like this where you can connect with activists at different organizations? What kinds of tools might be useful for not only the activist but also the organization?” Kuang said.

To keep up with the increasingly ambitious vision of Gather, Swerdlow and Kuang have expanded the Gather team, which now totals 10 members, all of whom are UChicago undergrads. While Swerdlow leads a team of seven on the business development side and Kuang leads a smaller group of three focused around software engineering and product design, the two sides function most smoothly when there are chances for collaboration.

“[Gather] is not just like an internship for students. It’s a way to join a team of people who are really committed to the democratic process and think there’s an opportunity to shift the way people look at politics. Everyone shares that mission and goal,” Swerdlow said.

Gather logo.

Both agreed that the team’s shared history as UChicago students has been invaluable in creating such a complex venture, one that involves their shared background in economics, Swerdlow’s experience with political science, and Kuang’s coursework in computer science. And uniting all aspects of Gather, according to Kuang, is a UChicago staple, the quintessential “life of the mind.”

“We have an opportunity to harness UChicago brain power to come up with interesting ideas,” Swerdlow added.

What’s next for Gather as it exits the planning stages and begins to solidify itself as the preeminent platform for politics? For Kuang and the technology team, incorporating machine learning and more advanced data analysis techniques are priorities and a web app for Gather is already in the works.

“A good app nowadays requires a deeper understanding of your users. One thing we’ve learned: from a political perspective or an activist perspective, data is key,” Kuang said.

For Swerdlow, deepening Gather’s influence across Chicago and engaging more groups on campus—an obvious hotbed for political passions across the ideological spectrum—are primary goals. Additionally, Swerdlow—inspired by his “incredible” experience learning best practices from like-minded leaders at the New Founders Conference—envisions Gather hosting its own gatherings of social organizers.

“Getting all of these activists in one place to converse on what’s working and isn’t working and also to pitch them on Gather is going to be useful,” Swerdlow said.

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