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Ep. 35: Bhavini Patel of Beam-Data

Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories

Bhavini Patel is CoFounder of Beam-Data, a Pittsburgh startup that just launched its Be the Change app. It is a civic accountability app that connects people to their elected reps and makes it easy to share community causes directly with them. Currently, the app features tell you who your elected officials are at the state level and allow you to share causes with them. We’re piloting with Senator Jay Costa in the 43rd District - if you share a cause in his district, Senator Costa’s office will address it in a response comment. Folks who live in the District can see this exchange and upvote or downvote causes! Learn more at

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Everybody I keep saying that as I tell these 50 Summer Stories of Tech with Comcast, I keep coming across new people that I've met. This just recently two old folks I've known forever. And today, I think it's just super cool cuz I'm talking to somebody that I didn't realize until a few weeks ago has kind of been my neighbor for a very long time, which I think is so much fun. Bhavini Patel, she's right around the corner from me. I just learned that I've been walking my dogs past her house forever. I'm just kind of stoked about I think it's kind of cool. And I'm so excited to talk to her because she's working on so many cool things. She's even an Athena awards finalist this year for 2020. And she's from Beam-Data. She's a co founder of Beam-Data. And we're going to talk about theBe the Change App today, amongst other things, so but he thanks for hanging out with me today. It's so cool to finally get to talk to you.

Yeah, thank you for the invitation. I love that we're neighbors and I love that we get to kick that off with this conversation. It's  awesome.

I had to bring it up cuz I think it's kind of cool. And that's why I think Pittsburgh is a rad place to be because it's such a small town. And I think I think I first met you about a year ago and you came during the tech and data summit every year I was learning more about what you were doing. And I was like, I got to connect up with a genie because he's working on good stuff. I know she's she's really, she's, she's more what Pittsburgh needs. Read a bunch more of you need.

Absolutely, absolutely.

Yeah. That is actually when we met. We met at the conference. I was actually organized by Derrick Murphy. And that's when we were just still ideating about the app. We still hadn't Okay, Vaughn live with it yet. And here we are a year later. Yes.

Exactly. And then my neighbors so first off, what's your background? I mean, in tell us about being dated for crying out loud. I like the name of the company. It sounds pretty cool.

Thanks. Yeah, I appreciate that. So, um, background, so I guess I could start with the fact I grew up in the area. I went to Pitt. And then I took a gap year I was doing a lot of community organizing work here in the area. And then I left for two years actually to get my master's degree at the University of Oxford and just move back last June. And because I've been so involved in the community, just doing work and you know, trying to stay on top of the issues, I actually came back and decided to run for Allegheny County Council because a seat had opened up there was a vacancy.

Okay, that's kind of cool. How many people do that for crying out loud?

So it was a it was a special election. I was reading, knocking on doors and just having really incredible conversations with people and trying to learn about the issues that they cared about in the mon Valley. So the district is pretty specifically the mon Valley but also Monroeville and plum. And it was just a really incredible experience. People were really open to having discussions and you know, she's talking about things like air quality, you know, taxation and how that's impacting livability in the communities. And I ultimately I didn't win the election. I came in second out of third but They really got me connected into local politics and I really got a sense happening.

That's a bad thing to do, too. I'm just saying like to go out and do that and take it on. It's got some gusto, man,

I had a lot of support while I was doing a lot of encouragement. And so I ended up doing it and didn't win. But like I said, got connected and learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes and legislative offices and the communications aspect behind it. And I don't know, I just I felt like that wasn't like, I didn't want to stop there. So after I ran and didn't, when I decided, Okay, like, Let's sit down and think about how we could organize around this. And we took pen to paper and started thinking about the app. And before you knew it, my startup beam data decided to release an app called Be the change, which is a civic action app that helps people connect with their elected officials to tell us all about the app. I want to hear about it.

Yeah, yeah. So okay, so specifics. So we just launched actually, last Thursday, we're in the App Store. The Android release is coming soon. we're piloting with Senator Costa in the 43rd district. And the way that it works is once you download the app, we ask you for your address or any address that's within, you know, a neighboring area that you live in so that we can identify your lesson officials. And so the app will tell you who your state representative is and your state senator. And then you can basically connect with them and share different community causes that you care about in your neighborhood, things that you're noticing that you want to bring to attention. You could share legislative feedback, if there's a particular build that you've been following, and you want your elected official to pay attention to it or voted a particular way. You can you can include that in the app and share that. And then in this case, since we're piloting what's in our Acosta, he'll get a notification and his office and his office will respond. And the best part about it is that you can actually see the conversations that are happening in your neighborhood once you log in, because it's everything is public. So you post right there and right then you're actually seeing the pulse of the community. And I hate to say it because this is just so basic like I can, I can admit I do not know all of my elected officials, right.

A lot of people don't and it's uncomfortable to like admit something like that. They're saying exactly who they are, and then Like you're building this direct line of communication through a pretty simple and elegant app, as you said, before we hit the record button. This isn't about building this complicated piece of technology to do this, it's keeping it pretty simple.

Yeah, I'm a big fan of simplicity. I think that, especially today, in today's day and age, I don't think technology needs to be as complicated as people make it out to be. Sometimes it's just a matter of connecting the dots. And if you download the app and check it out, see the changes, very simple UI, anybody can can kind of onboard and kind of figure it out just by clicking around. And one of my favorite features about the app is, you know, people can actually upvote and downvote different posts that have been shared in the neighborhood to kind of showcase that they agree or disagree with what's been shared. But something that's a bit controversial, and I still stand by and I think it's a great day and age is that we don't allow we don't allow constituents or just the general public to comment. The commenting is reserved for elected officials because they're the ones who are responding to the post. And so we're trying to mitigate the sort of the dialogue that we oftentimes see on Facebook and Twitter where it can kind of turn into something that's not That's constructive.

That's amazing. I think I have to agree with that. Because that the idea is, is you're getting people to bring the concerns there, and then allow them to respond and don't turn it into the shouting contest back and forth. That's what politics has become this day. So I think it's I think it's really unique that you're doing that. I think that that's really an effective way to get dialogue started, that starts to solve problem, I just win popularity contests, and like cut down fights with people.

Right, we're getting straight to the heart of the issues. People aren't, you know, people have a certain character that they can share character limits on the app, but they can share what they care about, we're giving them the option to share that post. And the best part about it is in terms of onboarding elected officials, I think that from the perspective of elected officials, they also feel like this, this is an app that they can engage with, because they're not going to get sucked into something that's not like an attack right. At the end of the day. Elected officials have busy schedules also, and they're trying to the best that they can. And so we wanted to build something that they felt comfortable with that they can onboard and engage with as well as opposed to having to spend so much time mitigating some of the challenges that we see on platforms like next door even or Twitter and Facebook. So how long ago did it take from the idea that you Had to getting this thing launched. I know these things are crazy. I wanted to take you to get this thing out and ready and saying it's time for people to use this thing.

So you kind of you kind of touched on it. Whenever we did that conference at Duquesne, that was sort of when we were ideating around it. And, you know, we had solidified, okay, this is what we want to build. And it took about a year to get everything up and going in terms of building out the partnerships that are Costa, and I'm, you know, wireframing and finding our developers and actually getting it built and kind of coming up with like a cool marketing plan around it to get people excited about it. And like I said, we just launched last Thursday and just out of the gates to this thing. So out what is the marketing plan? How can I be even more helpful to get the word out? You have this cool app that everybody should be downloading?

I mean, this is exactly it. I think it's so important to build curiosity around this right. I think that people I think civic education is so important, like sticking to the fundamentals. I really think that in today's day and age, we should be able to get these kinds of this information at the palm of our hands, especially when we have so many different apps are available, you should be able to know who your elected reps are and communicate with them in a simple manner. And so I think building that curiosity is important. So in terms of marketing, we've been partnering with a lot of local organizations who have civic education and civic engagement, that it's a part of their mission. We're really excited to get students involved, especially if grants are coming back. And COVID-19 has been something that's been obviously, you know, a big concern. And as students are coming back to campus, you know, students are going to have a lot of concerns and kind of questions. And so we think that that's a really great opportunity to introduce the app where they could share their concerns about COVID-19 and how they're experiencing on campus on the app. And like I said, center cost has always he's always done a phenomenal job of just engaging with constituents. And I think this is an even better way for him to engage with the youth and kind of bring them into the political process. And the other thing that I will say about that is voting, right, like civic engagement is so important to actually inspire people to vote. Voting isn't just going to happen by telling somebody to vote, they have to feel like their process.

Yeah. Especially in the stage where it's simple as an app to know that your voice is being heard that you have a concern that it's being communicated. And you see some you see that elected official responding that skin in the game now, it's only going to amplify people. And that's what we need to be more people to be engaged. You got a really cool, simple to use app to make that happen. That only happens in Pittsburgh. I love that's what I tell these Pittsburgh stories, because and that's 1000 more you here in Pittsburgh doing this type of work, because that's what's really gonna make us stand ahead.

Yeah, I completely agree with you. And I think I think honestly, like if I like I said, I was abroad for two years. And I made the deliberate decision to come back to the city because I think that there's just an incredible amount of potential and innovation. Like we invite these kinds of ideas. And I feel like city, the city of Pittsburgh makes these kinds of ideas possible, especially in the timeframe like coming up with an app and launching it within the span of a year and having an elected official, support it and being willing to pilot it. I think that's that's certainly a Pittsburgh story group for him to do. To take that that initiative to actually start up like that, I think I like the guy a little bit more right now. Yeah, I mean, he's incredible. He's always out there like learning about innovation and trying to educate himself on these kinds of issues. And that's another thing that I want to touch on too is your I think that a lot of our elected representatives kind of face challenges with kind of keeping up with what what's happening in the tech space. And what's happening in innovation space. Center classes is quite unique in that regard is always learning and kind of trying to keep track of what's happening. I think that we're piloting with him now. And I hope to in the future, to expand to other elected officials, and I think, absolutely, yeah, others are gonna see this, like, I gotta be doing this because it's making me look bad. If we're not doing it, this should be expanding as far as that. I mean, we built it in such a way to kind of help with that learning curve, too, right to kind of mitigate that learning curve and allow for adoptability so that they're not spending so much time learning the technology but can kind of intuitively get it.

Yeah, and that's what it's all about cuz you want, you know, the technology bogging them down. I'm looking at the tech council that we're really passionate about is making sure that our tech companies and the tech leaders are engaged with public policy as well, too, because their voices need to be heard. Elected officials need to see what their concerns and their problems are. And oftentimes, they're too busy building their next app. And they're not thinking about that. And they need to and now that they have an app like this, it makes it a lot easier for them. And they can relate to it as well, because it's an allowing them to connect. So I think it's a really cool solution in that way as well.

Yeah. And you touched on the topic of public policy. And I think that an app like this is so important for that too, because when you download the app, we actually allow for a map view. So you can technically see, you know, where different concerns have been shared and different causes have been shared and what categories have been shared. So if there's a particular part of the district that is sharing more environmental concerns compared to transportation concerns, and you kind of get a sense of what's happening and what part of the district, which I think is really compelling. And, you know, eventually when people start using the app and people start start sharing more causes, like, I think that that's a community owned report that we would be really interested in putting out at the end of the year. Thank you. here's here's a, here's a community generated, report about what they care about in District 43, or any other districts. And you know, here, here's the data like, these are things that you should be focusing on people care about it, you're capturing cold, hard data here, these are the facts, this is what's going on and off. So you can look at that day by day if you want it to. I mean, anytime you can pull data and start seeing these are the tracks, right. And that's so powerful when you think about the power of like a different nonprofit organizations in the neighborhood level work that they're trying to do to be able to make something like that publicly available in a nice, clean format. I think it facilitate a lot of partnerships and new conversations and more funding streams, especially we think about conversations around social justice, and you know, where the money is flowing. I think that transparency and accountability in this regard is really important. 100% I'm so glad I got to talk to you, David. It's such a great thing. We're gonna put the link in the liner notes here. So if anyone wants to go check out your site and check out the app, they gotta go there and do I'm saying go out there, download the friggin app and start using it. I think awesome. Simple as that. Thanks for being part of our Comcast Summer of 50 Pittsburgh Tech Stories. This has been one of my favorite, that's for sure.

Thank you for the invitation. This is great.


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