The Burg: App brings new civic engagement opportunities to the Bay Area

In March, a new app called The Burg -- a Silicon Valley Community Foundation grantee -- will launch in Silicon Valley, with the goal of increasing civic engagement and improving voter education. 

“We want to replace the clunky, outdated voter information pamphlet,” said Matt Pell, one of two founders of The Burg. The app explains every ballot measure in a detailed, nonpartisan way, and lets users mark how they plan to vote ahead of time, for easy reference at their polling place on election day. 

The name “The Burg” is a reference to both burg, meaning “community” in German, and to the fact that much of politics, like an iceberg, exists below the surface and is unseen. The Burg received funding from SVCF as part of a small grant round in 2018 that focused on increasing voter engagement in communities often overlooked by mainstream campaigns. 

The app launched in Southern California just before the 2018 midterm election and aims to be “the new front page of your city,” according to Pell and co-founder Kai Bryant, who met while attending college at UCLA.

"There were so many truly amazing stories from midterms,” said Pell. “People downloaded and shared our Ballot Tool throughout the region, and we heard from so many people who voted for the first time with The Burg. My favorite story is from a girl who was too young to vote, but used our app to get her parents to vote and even drove them to the polls!"

Pell and his team published a short blog post highlighting the dozens of stories they heard following last fall’s midterm elections.

The Burg's pilot program launch in Long Beach was capped off by a “digital town hall” featuring Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia – and Pell said the experience influenced his plans for a Bay Area launch of the app. “People were able to speak directly with the mayor from the comfort of their couch,” said Pell. “We had tons of students and young people engaging with their elected representatives for the first time. The pilot allowed us to test a bunch of features and learn what worked and what didn't, and we're incredibly excited to introduce these new updates in our Northern California launch!"

To use The Burg, residents enter their zip code and are grouped into online communities with their neighbors. The app verifies registered voters and adds a badge to their profile. A “downvote” system will allow the system to self-monitor inappropriate content; posts will collapse if they receive five or more downvotes. 

Following the Bay Area launch on March 8, the app will be available to residents of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The Burg team plans to focus on certain communities in East Palo Alto and San Jose where they think there is the most opportunity for positive impact through civic engagement. “Politics should trickle up from the communities, not trickle down,” said Pell. 

When there is no imminent election, The Burg hopes to be a conversation forum and was designed to foster civic engagement. Users can vote in weekly polls related to local topics, and there will be opportunities for community members to converse with their elected representatives, as with the Long Beach digital town hall. 

“We want it to be frictionless for voters and their representatives to communicate,” said Pell. “Not only do we want to increase voter turnout, we want to increase confident voter turnout.”

Other features of The Burg will include content generated by community organizations (nonprofits and community organizations are invited to sign up here!), and local news about important city-specific issues, with occasional breaking national and state news mixed in. The team also plans to roll-out a feature allowing journalists to sign up and receive news tips from community members.

In Los Angeles, the initial launch of the app resonated with an audience of young, first-time voters. “Word spread quickly via Instagram stories,” said Pell, explaining that downloads picked up quickly once local micro influencers began sharing about The Burg and how it helped them vote. He hopes The Burg will have the same impact with young voters in the Bay Area.

The Burg App

The Burg will be available for both Android and iOS on March 8, 2018.

Learn more about SVCF’s strategic grantmaking here.