BizVizz is a brand-new free iPhone app that makes corporate behavior transparent and available to all. Just snap a picture of a brand’s logo or bar code, and presto: A simple, graphic screen tells you the financial truth about 300 of America’s largest corporations. Independent Lens sat down with BizVizz co-founder Brad Lichtenstein, the filmmaker behind the award-winning PBS Independent Lens documentary, As Goes Janesville, to find out more about the app.
Congratulations on BizVizz going live! OK, so let's set the scene for the app’s practical use. I'm shopping. I see my favorite cereal, and scan the logo on my smartphone using BizVizz. Up pops all kinds of information about the company: profits, donations, taxes paid, government subsidies, etc. What am I supposed to do with this information? A lot of people these days are very conscious of how the products they use and consume are made. Fair trade, green, how a company treats its workforce — these are values people care about. We think BizVizz is another way for people to shop their values, especially when we are into our fifth year of economic recovery and asked to sacrifice.
We think people will care when they learn that one company pays their fair share of taxes vs. another that pays none at all. BizVizz is such an easy way for people to find out this information, plus it’s fun to take pictures of logos -- though maybe not so fun to learn that all of the brands on the typical grocery shelf lead to just a couple of companies.
Could an app that easily reveals this kind of information be seen by some as anti-business? BizVizz shows that this exerting influence is not a Republican or Democratic thing. It’s a power thing. Ordinary citizens don’t have the political muscle to write tax laws. We think of BizVizz as a tool to give people like you and me some power to point out how the system is unfair, and influence on the law-making process is something that money buys in America, which ultimately corrupts our democracy.
What are your goals for the app? Our main goals are to give people a clearer picture of money and influence in our democracy, to provide a tool for people to shop their values, to give access to this information to concerned citizens and activists, and to provide a resource for journalists. They all lead to the same place: a more transparent system, which means a stronger democracy. We are just providing the platform, but it will be interesting to see what people do with it…Ultimately I’d love to see companies that rate well in BizVizz wear it like a badge of honor!
How much longer would a shopping trip for, say, 30 items take using BizVizz? Well, let’s see, each time you snap a picture to get a result is about five seconds, so you’re talking about 2.5 minutes extra. But warning: The app gets addictive. You start comparing by industry, searching other companies for the fun of it, or exploring by profit or tax rate. Before you know it, they’re sweeping the aisles and kicking you out into the dark of night.
What was your motivation for putting the app together? The big motivator for me, personally, was watching how the city of Janesville courted a company with public dollars, but never even held a public hearing. Only a few business leaders and the city council were privy to audits and other information about the company, yet the taxpayers were footing the bill. No one in power protested except one city council member. I was stunned, but none of my subjects really shared my consternation.
How has it been received so far? There’s been such enthusiasm, and I think it really comes down to how so many good people are involved in wanting the same thing: for our democracy to work. It’s kind of Romantic when you think about it.
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