Various people involved in the neighbor-to-neighbor tool used by the Obama campaign are here to talk about it, Jascha from Blue State Digital, who provides the front-end tools, Mark from VAN, who build the back-end tools, and a couple of people from the Obama campaign (I didn’t catch their names, apologies). Katie Allen from the DNC, who pioneered the project back in 2006, is also in the room. Everyone wants feedback on how to improve the neighbor-to-neighbor tool.
The main idea of the tool is to leverage more effectively whatever personal connections, geographical proximity, or other kinds of affinities volunteers may have with targeted voters. Veterans-to-veterans, neighbor-to-neighbor, friend-to-friend, etc.
Also, the tool allows for more modular volunteering with a low barrier to entry, where people have access to what they need (phone lists, walk lists, scripts, etc) from home.
Then the tools has ‘activity trackers’ that both give volunteers a more material sense of what they are doing, and also helps organizers identify their best volunteers.
Use of the tool grew exponentially in the final days of the campaign, from hundreds of thousands of calls in the weeks leading up to E-day to more than a million calls on November 4th.
The audience ask about the usual control and command things, do anybody “check in” with these people, are they on message, were there examples of malicious use, can you block certain people from using it, etc.
The presenters are up-front about that, any open and distributed system allows for malicious use, but detailed control is too burdensome and even with a couple of percent of all contacts made using the tool are fake ones, the amount of additional real contacts it allows should outweigh these concerns. A good one-liner, “you should be concerned about malicious data, but not obsessed with it”.
They add that there were mechanisms in place to control data and the like, and that they were used in practice, especially before everything heated up in the final days.
Someone in the audience asks who owns the tool. The presenters laugh and pause for a while. The verdict is (un)clear: “well… it is a bit… mixed up a little bit.” Ok. Blue State owns part of the code and interface, VAN owns part of it, DNC gave birth to it, so have a say in it, Obama for America used it and bought it, so they have to make some decisions too about its future use and development. Blue State Digital and VAN of course wants to develop this and offer it to their clients, and need to think about where to go. As Mark Sullivan from VAN puts it, it was very much developed for the Obama campaign, “with the assumption that every number would have 6 zeroes after it”–i.e., it was scaled for a very well-funded presidential campaign with tons of volunteers and staffers.
I ask how they imagine it will scale to congressional elections in 2010? There will be less money, fewer staffers, and fewer volunteers. Mark Sullivan says it should be easier to scale up than to scale down. (that’s fine, but is the tool cost-effective on a smaller scale? It’ll have to be cheap or intergrated into standard packages).