- Associated Press - Sunday, September 18, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - The inspiration for a new mobile app to connect people with politicians stemmed from the outpouring of anger and activism following the 2012 shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, said Horace Williams, the Atlanta software developer who is building it.

Williams remembers thinking that no one knew quite what to do after the controversial killing, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (https://bit.ly/2cM1m17).

“It was the first time a public issue on television made me break down and cry,” said Williams, 32. “And I was like, ‘Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows how to act.’”

The experience inspired Williams’ idea for Empowrd, an app that instantly shows users their elected leaders and connects them with their phone numbers and email addresses.

The maze of government is hard for many people to negotiate and often they never know who their leaders are, he told the Atlanta newspaper.

“The complexity around the system is something no one wants to be a part of,” he said. “There is nothing accessible about it.”

About 16,000 elected officials are in the app’s database, although Georgia is the only state fully represented so far.

Georgia’s massive number of counties (only Texas has more) and complex jurisdictional lines provided just the right challenge for the software, Williams told the Atlanta newspaper.

Williams came to Atlanta to work for the social marketing firm Vitrue, which had purchased the tech startup he worked at in New York. When Vitrue was itself purchased in 2012 by California-based Oracle, Williams started thinking about his next steps and how to mesh his software expertise with growing desire to engage in civic life.

The entrepreneurial side of him saw vacuum in the mobile app arena when it came to politics and social activism. For years, Williams said he worked on software “that marketers paid millions of dollars for to make millions of dollars.”

“That same amount of effort isn’t put toward our democratic process,” he said.

Kurt Young, chairman of the Clark Atlanta University Political Science Department, said he sees the development of apps around political communication and activism as a logical step with a lot of promise. It just so happens that the technological advances that make apps like Empowrd possible are happening during a dynamic political period for a young, diverse electorate, he said.

“What we are seeing unfolding now is the beginning of a shift in the political culture, whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Ferguson (Missouri) or this pipeline discussion with Native Americans,” Young said.

This shift has a technological component embedded within it, Young said.

“Remember,” he said, “Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag.”

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