Entrepreneur Rebekah Kang has a dream that one day, technology will make politicians obsolete.
“It’s really hard to communicate and hard to raise your voice. That’s why you don’t trust (politicians) and … a lot of people are not voting anymore,” she said. “If we’re not happy about what they’re doing, why do we need them?”
Just as Google Nest manages a smart home, citizens will use a service to scroll through the legislation that is important to their lifestyle, such as whether they have a kid, a car, a house or a pet, their income level and marital status. Then the service analyzes how each bill will impact their life, and users can vote for it themselves -- eliminating the need for the middle man.
Rebekah Kang, founder of MyCandidate and Asian market development manager for Washington-based FiscalNote, poses at a coworking space in Seoul on Friday. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald
That day, however, is still a dream. But as one of the few start-up entrepreneurs standing at the intersection of technology and politics, Kang is doing what she can.
Her mission is to connect voters with their political representatives through technology.
“Voters really want to know what candidates are looking for and what they’re trying to do, and how they have been keeping in what they promised before,” said Kang, creator of Korean app MyCandidate, which was acquired by U.S. legal tech start-up FiscalNote in September.
“So I’m trying to make a good ecosystem of how government data can be utilized in a better way.”
From an outsider’s perspective, she said, Korea’s election process is archaic. She spent hundreds of hours in 2010 helping with her father’s election for a city council seat in her hometown of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, passing out brochure cards to passersby.
The trucks that candidates rent to display giant LCD screens and play horrific jingles cost some $70,000, according to Kang, and if the candidate loses, the entire family is unemployed as everyone would quit their job to work on the election.
She realized that even with the gimmicks, all the information that citizens know about who they’re voting for can fit on a business card.
“At that moment, I realized there was a huge gap between voters and politicians,” she said. “The way people communicate with voters … is like the ’80s and ’90s. We have smartphones and (technology) is so well developed, but in the election and campaign industry itself, people are still behind.”
By the time her father ran for his third term last year, Kang had expected the National Election Committee to make information more accessible to voters. When nothing changed, she took matters into her own hands and created MyCandidate, which presents NEC data and media news on candidates in a user-friendly way, and features a message board for users to communicate with the aspiring representatives.
The app garnered a frenzy of popularity ahead of the June 2014 local elections, attracting 50,000 users and media attention. Nonetheless, she struggled to raise funding as people questioned her motives. After rejecting offers from individuals she discovered had political ambitions, she realized she had to look outside of Korea.
This year, MyCandidate was acquired by FiscalNote, a Washington-based legal information technology start-up that mines and analyzes legislative data from the federal to local levels so organizations including Uber, Aetna and Planned Parenthood can track bills that are relevant to them.
FiscalNote hopes to bring its algorithm-based infrastructure to Korea and other Asian markets to promote a multinational synergy that will become essential to global companies. It has partnered with Shin & Kim, one of the top three law firms in Korea, in this aim.
With the financial and logistical support from FiscalNote -- which raised $10 million from Chinese social network Renren in February -- Kang is now heading its Korean operations and Asian market exploration, while revamping MyCandidate with more community engagement features and launching it as MyPolitician in time for next year’s National Assembly election.
While FiscalNote focuses on serving enterprises and MyCandidate aims to help individual voters, they can create synergy through their shared vision for improved government transparency, she said.
Kang said her mission will be fulfilled “when all the politicians are gone,” but she will at least be more satisfied if FiscalNote and MyPoliltician make an impact on Korea’s political landscape.
“We can dream about anything, right?” she said. “I hope that in 10-20 years, because of FiscalNote and MyPolitician, all politicians work transparently and honorably -- the way politicians should be.”
For more information, visit fiscalnote.com.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Start-up Seoul is a series featuring players in Korea’s emerging tech start-up scene. This is the 13th installment. ― Ed.