The Obama IPO
Will technology developed by his campaign make the president a power broker for many elections to come?
Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.
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?
“If 2008 was the alpha test, this is beta. There are a lot of good ideas, and a lot of hypotheses will either be proven or disproven in this election through new product development and system improvements,” says Dukes, who has since founded Jetpac, a travel-app startup. “Problems that exist in campaigns are similar to problems that exist elsewhere, and people in tech see the parallels. It’s not clear there’s a $100 million exit option in political technology”—in other words, a large corporation willing to pay top dollar to buy out an entrepreneur’s idea—“but entrepreneurs in the Valley are starting to look at it.”
There is already a clear path to market for technology incubated in the service of electing Obama. As the campaign’s deputy field director in Georgia in ’08, Aharon Wasserman found himself spending as many as five hours each night collating data on his organizers’ activities—the number of local volunteer teams assembled, canvassing shifts assigned, voters contacted—into a spreadsheet sent to national officials in Chicago. Along with a volunteer, Justin Lewis, Wasserman designed a program to automate many of those reporting and monitoring procedures; eventually, his peers in other states heard about Wasserman’s breakthrough and asked if they could use it, too. “We weren’t thinking at the time that we were going to develop this for the entire campaign,” he says. “We were just trying to do something in Georgia.”
After the election, Wasserman, Lewis, and a third campaign volunteer, Edward Saatchi, combined to start a firm, National Field, to refine and market their program. In 2009, the Democratic National Committee became an early client, followed by state parties and congressional campaign committees. They began to think of their software as not just a Web-based internal reporting system for organizations, but a Facebook for an org-chart world, adding flourishes like pictures to individual profiles and distinctive features like “ups” and “challenges” designed to engender a sense of competition. “People don’t like to report in general, but if you make it feel like a good experience it becomes a place they want to go,” says Wasserman.
Last month, the 15-employee firm was granted a patent for its “hierarchical social network” design and has begun marketing their product to non-campaign clients, like Kaiser Permanente and Great Britain’s National Health Service, and Wasserman sees room for growth in the airline and education sectors. National Field’s identity remains tied up with Obama for America (the re-election campaign is a client), but the president’s political organization has never tried to assert its ownership of a technology incubated by its employees and volunteers on campaign time. “It never came up,” says Wasserman.
This year, however, the campaign already seems to be taking steps to formalize its relationship to the intellectual property being developed in its name. Unlike typical campaign volunteers, those who sign up to help at the San Francisco tech office are required to sign contracts with both nondisclosure and work-for-hire provisions, according to those familiar with the arrangement. But while employment contracts would probably make it easy to stop former staffers from selling the work they did for the campaign, Obama’s lawyers would struggle to prevent a volunteer from doing so. "It's hard to enforce an agreement where money or other valuable consideration isn't being exchanged,” says Michael Toner, general counsel of George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. “As a legal matter, if you had a volunteer on a campaign that came up with some asset that had commercial value it would be hard to bar that person from using it for non-campaign purposes."
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.