Mark Sullivan, Jim St. George, and the rest of the crew from Voter Activation Network, the company that provides VoteBuilder and many other interfaces and front-end tools for data analysis for Democrats and progressives, hosted a session on their products.
Sullivan started by pointing out that a lot of the development this cycle was driven by demand from the Obama campaign, and through interaction with their tech people, and people from Blue State Digital and the micro tools they developed for the MyBarackObama site. Now the question is what the VAN should work on in the future: “what would you like to see?”
One thing several people comment on is the proliferation of different databases and tools, and how much easier everyday work would be with integration into one common platform, what someone calls “the holy grail of only one big database”.
Others request more campaign-control, more fields that can be customized with locally relevant information, or whatever else the campaign think is important.
(The two ideas are both reasonable enough, but seems to draw in two different directions, one is for more centralization and streamlining, the other, more decentralization and customization.)
People would also like better tools for volunteer management.
Sullivan underlined that the data available in 2008 was much better than before, that through collaboration with Catalist and various progressive groups, the VAN included often rich data on most of the voting age population, not only registered voters. When people asked for more data and more access, he pointed out that there are not only technical challenges to overcome, but also political problems about data-sharing etc to deal with. That discussion really went nowhere, though it seems to me one of the most interesting. VAN is driving a technical democratization of data access (within the progressive network), whereas many other organizations still hold onto what they have and are reluctant to share (for a variety of reasons stretching from reasonable over understandable to more parochial).
A final discussion was of what technical devices the VAN and its tools should work on, so far, palm pilots and personal computers have been the main, but will there in the future be, say, smart phone applications. Sullivan was skeptical, he didn’t think there’d be enough such phones around for the forseeable future, and pointed out that they are too expensive for campaigns and organizations to provide canvassers with them.