Will technology developed by his campaign make the president a power broker for many elections to come?
In the middle of 2008, Derek Dukes decided he wanted to help Barack Obama get elected president. He started raising money for the campaign, largely through the Local Lefties mailing list that his girlfriend helped to run in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, and regularly visited the campaign’s Market Street office for volunteer shifts. He saw many familiar faces there, either from his time at a Silicon Valley corporate headquarters (Dukes was Yahoo’s sixth employee) or the city’s startup scene (he had left Yahoo to launch the timeline website Dipity). “There had already been a little mini-collapse, and investment in the Internet pulled back,” says Dukes. “People in tech in San Francisco had a lot of free time.” Regardless of their backgrounds, these volunteers were being asked to make phone calls to voters in battleground states. When office organizers realized that Dukes, a technical product manager, had computer fluency, he was given data-entry tasks. “As a technologist, I thought the tools they were using weren’t very impressive but super-functional. It was obvious they could be doing things smarter and better,” he reflects. “But I wasn’t really involved at a level that I would give feedback or propose changes.”
Last week, Dukes encountered some of those same faces once again at a party to christen a new Obama “tech field office,” which for a month has been quietly enlisting skilled Bay Area supporters to take on more ambitious work than phone canvassing or data entry. Unlike the hundreds of field offices Obama will eventually open elsewhere in the country, the campaign isn’t inviting walk-ins to its SoMa outpost; volunteers need to demonstrate that they have advanced coding and program-design talents and schedule regular shifts by appointment. The tech team at Obama’s Chicago headquarters hopes to assign them entire projects, and has dispatched a top campaign official, Catherine Bracy, to oversee the satellite facility.
In 2008, most innovation was accidental, the result of a perpetually expanding campaign with a surfeit of talent and resources always looking to solve new problems. Much of the core technical work was contracted to outsiders: the web infrastructure to agency Blue State Digital, and the statistical models to Ken Strasma’s firm Strategic Telemetry. Yet this time around, most of those functions (and others) are being carried out by staff in Chicago—with new Silicon Valley-style titles like “chief innovation officer” and “product manager”—and boosted with extra help from West Coast volunteers. Just in the last week, the campaign has unveiled a new one-click fundraising protocol via text message and a fresh organizing interface it calls Dashboard.
“It’s clear they’re putting more effort into building back-end systems in-house this time,” says Jim Pugh, who worked on Obama’s online-analytics team in 2008 and now oversees technology for the lefty advocacy group Rebuild the Dream. “Any presidential campaign, and the Obama campaign in particular, is going to have some very specific requirements. Doing custom design for stuff like that can get them a lot more than would be possible just going through third-party sources or contract work.”
Those involved in Obama’s campaign are openly optimistic that their innovations will have an impact on the outcome in November, but their private conversations also raise tantalizing questions about what happens after the election. Could the technology developed by Obama's campaign make the president a political power broker for elections to come?...MORE