In the documentary As Goes Janesville, a Wisconsin town is desperate for jobs. And when the major layoffs came, director Brad Lichtenstein says he saw little corporate transparency. It lead to creating an app, BizVizz, which launched today in the Apple App Store, and Lichtenstein shared his story of how it came to be.
It started for Lichtenstein, a duPont-Columbia award-winning documentary filmmaker with no formal background in technology or coding skills, in 2009, when he attended the New Media Producer’s Institute at Bay Area Video Coalition.
“At BAVC, I got addicted to the idea of using code to extend stories and move issues into a new audience,” Lichtenstein says.
But the experience there left him wanting more.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012 and a brainstorm with ITVS, which funded As Goes Janesville.
“The first idea for the app — that ultimately we couldn’t do — would let the user know which jobs had been cut at various companies. We wanted to see layoffs and the offshoring of jobs. When I consulted with an organization called Good Jobs First, they told me they don’t have a good way to measure that data, because companies are not required to disclose it. But what companies are required to disclose is their tax records, and the subsidies they get from the government.”
The subsidy angle was particularly relevant to the film given that Janesville had made a deal with a medical isotope company to bring in some much needed revenue into the town’s budget.
“What got me upset when this happened was that there was no democratic process. All of the dealmaking was done behind closed doors with the city council, business leaders — and the public was never involved. So I thought, what can I do to disclose that this is essentially the norm in the way governments work with businesses?”
ITVS gave Lichtenstein a $75,000 grant (the documentary cost more than $600,000) and Lichtenstein paired with Faculty Creative, a digital creative agency headquartered in Philadelphia, to make the app “fun.” By snapping a photo of a logo, an app user would be connected to a Wikipedia-like database of corporate accountability, but the app would also encourage an average person to be curious about their environment.
“The entire country can see and reflect a powerful portrait of how companies do or do not play shell games with the American people,” said Lichtenstein. “The app lets people make more informed decisions.”
Lichtenstein realized early on that the creation of an app alone wouldn’t be enough to engage audiences. “You have to have partners who understand your message and importance of your film and to deliver to the audience and user group with purpose. Otherwise, you can build a great product and nothing will happen.”
He offered a list of partners including AFL-CIO, Citizens for Tax Justice, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Tax Justice Network USA, U.S. PIRG, Working Films and Kartemquin Films, the co-producer of As Goes Janesville. Good Jobs First, a government-accountability nonprofit organization, helped track government subsidies; Citizens for Tax Justice revealed corporate tax data; campaign finance data came from the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer API. Another key partnership came from another documentary, We’re Not Broke, about how the U.S. government has allowed multinational corporations to avoid paying taxes. Both films share an outreach mission, despite being formally different films. The BizVizz app addresses the corporations featured in both.
To Lichtenstein, this app amplifies the personal experience and discovery he had in a small town in Wisconsin. “Power doesn’t answer to anyone if it doesn’t have to. When you’re spending taxpayer dollars, it should be a democratic process. Give the public the tools to be informed and ask the right questions about their taxpayer money and to be engaged.”