But there have been some issues that we have had over time. (Some of these things have been solved.) So, for instance, you might want to be able to create groups or classifications in the system. GOP Data Center now can do that, though I don't know if the MassGOP provides that at this time. The GOP Data Center looks like it wants to do "micro targeting" - i.e. - this guy was against the Health Care law in addition to being Republican - but it is not enabled now according to the documentation. It also used to be hard to update this information. But now, if you have permissions, you can update some of the fields on this data set.
Yet there are other issues. Campaigns collect all kinds of information about people. Aside from technical challenges about moving data around, there are other concerns. Perhaps a big campaign will add all kinds of information to a voter list that they download from the GOP Data Center. Perhaps some of that data is valuable to them and they don't want to share it. This could be a list of who is willing to volunteer or donate. Or who is willing to spread the word about the campaign on social media. You can imagine all kinds of things.
Now, I can see by looking at the GOP Data Center documentation and screenshots that it is capable of adding all kinds of fields and customizations, but I am pretty sure this will be an awkward process with all kinds of restrictions that will make it unlikely anyone is going to do this. We need something that is going to let us develop all kinds of special extra data, including the ability to mark data being inaccurate. Also, rather than printing out walk and strike lists, we would like to get it to our smartphones. Lastly, we would like to add something that is going to be increasingly important once everybody is contacting these voters all the time now: contact preferences. Because not everyone is going to want to be suddenly contacted by three levels of candidates and their state party and RTC in the same week. We are going to have to manage how we talk to our voters, or the politicians are going to pass do-not-call style laws and we aren't going to be able to talk to anyone.
Yes, you could export all your voter data into something like a spreadsheet, then import it into a web application with a mobile interface, and then do what you want with it. But I don't think any Republican campaign has tried that, though I have heard that the Democrats in this state have some sort of smartphone-based app to keep lists for door-knocking.
Related to this, we want to be able to easily integrate this data with other campaign tools. So if I have a mailing list application, it would be great to be able to easily bring this data into my mailing list. Also, we want it to be easy to write new custom applications against this data set using a nice API (Application Programming Interface).
So let's review what we want here:
1. We want to give complete freedom to campaigns and RTCs to modify and enhance this data however they want.
2. We want to make it relatively easy for campaigns to share this data with other groups.
3. We want an API to make it easy to write applications and use those that others write.
4. Integrate it with other campaign tools.
5. We want to bring this data to smartphones for canvassing and GOTV.
6. We want to establish and update contact preferences for voters.
Can we do these things now? Not really. Sure, organizations can download a spreadsheet and modify the columns, but that would be cumbersome, especially if they want to share that data back. A campaign would have to provide a sanitized excel spreadsheet and give it to someone authorized to put the data and custom fields into the GOP Data Center. As for #3, I only saw an API for building help-related applications for the GOP Data Center and not around the data itself. (That makes no sense to me.) And as for #5, I don't see an easy way to do that. For contact preferences, I don't think the Data Center provides that feature at all.
So while the GOP Data Center is a big improvement over Voter Vault, I am nervous about its future. The design of the software that provides the list seems less-than-ideal and I doubt it will be innovative over time. But...
Enter NationBuilder's Free Voter File
One of the most disruptive things in politics and technology happened last fall: NationBuilder freed the voter file! Great story about it here. I can't tell you how big a big deal this is! This data was hard to get, hard to clean up, and expensive. NationBuilder is now doing what the private companies hired by the Republicans and Democrats do: they take the data from the government, clean it up on a regular basis, and let their customers have it for super-cheap. It has blown up the duopoly the parties have and politics and power are going to radically change. I predict that in two years, the GOP Data Center will be totally obsolete compared to this freight train of innovation. I am serious. Every political tech nerd I know is talking about what might be done with this free data.
Don't forget, they start with the same data that the parties initially get. Now, you might say that the corporations the GOP uses will do a better job cleaning it up. Are you sure? Did Voter Vault convince you of the quality of that effort? NationBuilder says the following: "Voter data is updated twice a year and referenced against the National Change of Address Database quarterly."
The other thing is that the NB guys have just launched an effort to get people to create apps and services that will live on top of this layer. It's going to be awesome! They also offer - as a paid add-on - donor and social intelligence that you can apply to that data. It is pretty cool! And, in NationBuilder, they have a stunning array of tools to use that data for traditional campaign activities. They even provide it all on mobile. That's right - for almost no money, you can field even a better operation than Scott Brown had with Mass Victory and the GOP Data Center. You can do everything the GOP Data Center can do - pick behaviors to sort by, print out lists, and much, much more. Of course, why print lists when you can put the voters and tools right on your phone?
Screenshot of NB mobile voter app for canvassing.
Here are some screenshots of what you can do with this data for your campaign:
Now the GOP probably thinks that their data will get better and they will get better tools. Let me be clear! The guys at NationBuilder are former Obama For America guys who are smart, well-funded, and move fast. By the time the GOP gets around to improving the tech around this data, the game will already be over.
The NationBuilder file and tools solve all our six problems. They even support voter contact preferences! Also, they have great import and export tools that support all kinds of volunteer and donor fields. This is crucial to make the sharing happen.
What do we do now?
First, I think that NationBuilder should be the default choice for party committees and campaigns. In fact, NationBuilder has the feature of sub-nations where a bunch of sub-sites can all use the same data together. It doesn't take a genius to realize that we could have one big nation site, and make a lot of campaigns and committees using all the same tools and data together in one place. Now THAT would change the whole game for us and put us ahead of the Democrats here.
I think the GOP Data Center still has value. But we should be comparing it to what NationBuilder is doing. So the GOP wants to add layers to that data to help campaigns. But, as this POLITICO article from last year showed, they argue about giving "too much" away to the masses (that's right - us.). Well they are now in a world where they are going to have to compete with a lot of great people who don't care about this ongoing feudal arrangement. If the GOP Data Center can do great stuff - wonderful. Perhaps we can even take that data and combine it with what NB is doing. Importing that into a NB site wouldn't be hard at all. The data could even go the other way, if you had the authorization to do so.
A big thing we need to do is create a culture of sharing and improvement. When a committee or campaign learns something about a voter that would help others, that data should be shared to benefit others - even if it is something as mundane as contact preferences. Sure, they can keep some of this private, but we need to start thinking of what will be good for everyone. Part of that is asking the big campaigns to not just outsource all the data and voter stuff, leaving all of us with nothing after the campaign is over. Every campaign should improve our knowledge of voters and share that data back to the party. Period. (This is part of the positive equity principle that David and Dean brought to the MassGOP Chairman's race.)
Lastly, and I can't say this enough: we need lots more people in this party who know how to use the many outstanding features of NationBuilder. I tell the YRs and CRs that these skills will make them vastly more valuable than doing things like phone banking and door-knocking. Yes, we need that, too - but as my other post described, we need to get religion about technology. There are already some guys in the party who are good at this! Brad Marston and Fourtier have really kicked ass. I just found out that my friend Keith Messina is savvy about this. Awesome! I can't wait to hear more about who is doing what with this stuff. We must all unite!
(Apparently Rick Green has religion already about NB. Mass Fiscal Alliance and his campaign site already use NB. But they are doing so little with it! It's like buying a Ferrari and driving it around a retirement community in first gear.)