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Programming Political Transparency: How 1 Teen Changed D.C.

Recent high school graduate Nick Rubin talks about his political financing app, Greenhouse


Welcome to ElectionMap. The 2016 election has produced numerous candidates for both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as hundreds of Independent and third-party candidates. ParentMap aims to help our readers make informed decisions going into the election season. Read more in the series.

When Seattle teen Nick Rubin was just 16, he created an app called Greenhouse. This free browser extension allows users to hover their mouse over the name of any senator, representative or presidential candidate to receive a detailed record of the politician’s financial contributions broken down by donation size, amount and origin. As the app’s website explains, Greenhouse “puts vital data where it’s most relevant so you can discover the real impact of money on our political system.”

Lakeside School's Nick Rubin developed Greenhouse as a 16-year-old | Photo credit: Nick Rubin

Greenhouse was an immediate success, generating press from Vice, Fast Company and The Washington Post, among others. “This,” as one Reddit user wrote, “should become the default overlay for any news [organization] or CSPAN broadcast. Instead of the (D) or (R) affiliation it should show whom they really are aligned with.”

Apparently, many agreed. Greenhouse became an overnight success, a whirlwind rise that taught teenage Rubin about the workings of the app industry, as well as the joys and pitfalls of fame. In this year of elections, ParentMap checks in with the now 18-year-old graduate of Lakeside School to see how Greenhouse changed his life and what he’s up to next.

Tell me about life after the app launched.

The response has been phenomenal; Greenhouse has been downloaded over 130,000 times. There have been many articles written in the U.S., as well as in countries on every continent (except Antarctica). Most importantly, it’s been picked up by every political party. It has received support from Democrats and Republicans, from liberal to conservative to libertarian publications. It’s fantastic seeing people from opposite ends of the spectrum use and appreciate Greenhouse. It really is a nonpartisan tool, and the response has shown that people really do want transparency like this.

The few months after the launch of Greenhouse kept me very busy ... In fact, just a week after the launch, before it was really noticed, I left on a school trip to China. But 10 days into that month-long trip I decided to return home to deal with Greenhouse and the press after receiving a frenzied phone call from my parents that the app had gone viral.

Because of Greenhouse, I’ve been invited to do a number of interviews and speaking engagements, have met many fantastic and passionate people and am now working on even larger projects. It really was life-changing.

What is the future of Greenhouse? Are you still interested in it?

Yes, I’m still very interested and have over 130,000 users to keep updated. Last month, I released an update that included 2016 presidential candidates. This month, I plan to release another large update for the 2016 Congressional elections.

Are you developing any new apps?  

High school and Greenhouse have kept me pretty busy. I’ve been working on a number of small projects, and have left this summer clear to hopefully work on a few bigger ones. 

How did you become interested in coding and app development?

I had been using computers and the internet since elementary school; by sixth grade I wanted to create something myself. My first website was a simple list of my favorite songs, some funny images and a couple of games. I shared it with my friends, and they loved it. As I got older, I continued using online resources to teach myself and created a portfolio website for my photography. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on code.

What advice do you have for kids who want to create their own apps?

Programming and trying to teach yourself may seem like daunting tasks at first. However, it’s really just a matter of persistence and dedication. There are plenty of fantastic resources online. If your school doesn’t offer coding classes, don’t worry! If you can spend 30 minutes after school every day working on a new programming concept, you’ll be able to build cool things in no time. With the proper tools, it’s easier than it seems.

For kids interested in activism, get your word out! Start a blog or draft an article for your school or local newspaper. It’ll be noticed and read.

How did you become interested in politics? 

I’ve always been passionate about social issues, and I think that’s what drew me in initially. With campaign finance in particular, I was assigned a presentation back in seventh grade on the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. After spending time researching the case and realizing that there weren’t any young voices standing up against corruption, I decided to take a stand myself.

Any advice for kids who want to become involved in politics? 

For kids interested in activism, get your word out! Start a blog or draft an article for your school or local newspaper. It’ll be noticed and read. In general, a kid standing up for an important social issue [comes off as] more impressive than an adult [doing the same].

What else are you up to now? Any new plans to share?

Other than programming and activism, I’m very passionate about photography and travel. I’ve been taking film photography courses in school for the past four years, and have always enjoyed taking pictures in my free time or on trips. Besides photography, I love playing tennis, going on hikes and spending time with my puppy and family.

This September, I’ll be heading off to Stanford University. I’m very excited. I look forward to potentially majoring in computer science and to the many opportunities I’ll have to continue combining CS with my other passions, such as politics and activism.

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