Boston lawyer hopes he’s building platform for productive political discourse

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Before enrolling at Boston College Law School, Choate, Hall & Stewart associate Matthew Victor was a technology consultant. But he also had what he calls a “fatal attraction” to political campaign finance reform, which persists to this day.

In the summer of 2020 — before his second year of law school — Victor founded the Good Governance Project at BC. Initially, the project focused on campaign finance reform nationally but eventually refined its scope to democracy reform more broadly while also restricting its geographic lens to Massachusetts — “our backyard,” Victor says.

Through a survey of professors, students, organizations and advocates, the Good Governance Project identified three issues to focus on: early voting, voting by mail, and publicly financed campaigns.

The grassroots organization Code for Boston, which pairs software developers, project managers and others looking to do something socially beneficial in their spare time, helped Victor and friends build a website. Visitors could speak their minds about three issues, and their locations would be geotagged so that decision-makers could see where those voices were coming from.

There was just one problem. They built it, but not enough people came.

“I thought we could build it and just send a tweet and that the internet would magically fix it for us and make it popular,” Victor says. “Not the case.”

Victor has now brought that lesson in marketing — along with the technical experience he gained and the alliances he forged — to his new venture, the Massachusetts Platform for Legislative Engagement, or MAPLE for short.

MAPLE, found at mapletestimony.org, is a free public platform that allows visitors to submit or read testimony on bills pending in the Massachusetts Legislature.

The Legislature is not required to disclose the written testimony it has received, and it is rarely disclosed in practice, the MAPLE website notes.

Matthew Victor“As one of, I think, three states where the legislature has exempted themselves from public records laws altogether, it’s difficult to understand who our legislators are listening to when they’re making decisions,” Victor says.

MAPLE seeks to fill that void. For those wishing to offer testimony, MAPLE will help prepare the email, populating the “to” line with the addresses of the bill’s sponsors, the chairs of the relevant legislative committee, and the user’s local representative or senator. The testimony is then published in a freely accessible online database, allowing other stakeholders to read the perspectives.

Victor co-founded MAPLE with Nathan Sanders, a data scientist affiliated with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

The project was incubated at Northeastern University’s NuLawLab, where Victor and Sanders continue to work closely with director Dan Jackson. Code for Boston is back in the mix as well.

While the site is already quite robust — visitors can browse and add to testimony throughout a comprehensive library of bills — Victor says it is still in “soft launch mode.”

Enhancements to come include a newsfeed and a “social layer,” which will allow people to follow organizations or bills and get email notifications when, say, the ACLU has shared testimony, or a bill has a hearing scheduled.

Users will be able to follow their favorite public figure, professor or a neighbor, “if you think your neighbor’s really smart, or you don’t like them — either way,” Victor says.

Also crucial is the build-out of MAPLE’s “moderation suite,” enabling the site to enforce its code of conduct, Victor adds.

Other features are in the development pipeline as well. Victor and his partners have scraped the lobbying disclosures from the secretary of state’s website. The plan is to display the information on each bill’s page so that users can see what lobbyists’ clients have taken positions on.

Meanwhile, MAPLE is partnering with computer engineering students at Boston University to add to the site searchable transcriptions of the video hearings on the Legislature’s website.

MAPLE further plans to integrate ChatGPT or another large language model tool to summarize bills as well as testimony.

Victor says that accessibility is important to MAPLE team members, and they are planning to do manual translations for the website. Ultimately, they want to allow people to provide testimony in their native language, which would then be translated for legislators and the public alike.

Victor believes digital tech’s ability to connect people to each other and to their legislators is “severely underutilized.”

Platforms like X (the former Twitter), Instagram and Facebook “are not designed to carry political energy in an effective way,” Victor believes.

“They’re designed to sell advertisements,” he says.

Because the First Amendment would restrict its ability to moderate or curate, the government is “substantially inhibited” from creating digital spaces where fruitful political conversations can happen, Victor adds.

“We need some nonprofits or alternative structures to create digital spaces designed specifically to create productive civic discourse and channel our political energies online to make better decisions for our state and local communities,” he says.

The early adopters of MAPLE have tended to be activists and others who have long since dropped an inhibition about bending ears on Beacon Hill and having their thoughts put on public display.

“But we also hope that by standardizing and making [the process] more accessible that we have new people share their voices,” Victor says.

Victor says that, as a lawyer, he feels a responsibility to “make sure that our process of making laws is excellent.”

But he acknowledges that participating in state and local governance is something that very few people do.

“It requires people to flex some sort of dormant muscle,” he says.

He notes that, for many, it feels very different to send a tweet, even if the process of submitting public testimony is very much the same.

On some level that makes sense, given that ideally testimony is not “entertainment” but designed to influence bills that will affect lives, Victor says.

But he hopes that MAPLE will help demystify the process and get people past this hesitation.

“If we’re in a democracy and if we’re not speaking, then we’re not fulfilling our responsibility,” he says.

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