Creating Technology for Social Change

Political Tech vs. Civic Tech

The campaign post-mortems are pouring in, unveiling the computer magic behind the Obama campaign. We should probably be thankful that the conversation has evolved from 2004-2008’s obsession with social media into a newfound lay interest in data aggregation and empirically valid testing. I’m learning a lot reading these articles.

This stuff is cool, but the Holy Grail Subject Line is not why we got into this work in the first place. Tom Steinberg has responded with an inspiring post encouraging the talent behind campaign tech to consider building civic technologies. Tom outlines some really important (and thus far unfulfilled) goals for civic tech to aspire to, including:

  1. These tools, apps, platforms, whatever, need to scale way beyond even the most popular instances we have today to be considered worthy of actually reshaping society and impacting all of those millions of people in society who have never heard the phrase “Gov 2.0”.
  2. We should attempt to produce tech that creates transformative change at the seismic level of so many internet-driven disintermediators, from TripAdvisor to eBay. This means creating new possibilities and patterns of behavior so profound, we can’t even return to the Old Way of doing things.

I agree with Tom that it’d be good for the world if some of the campaign ninjas become improved democracy ninjas (barring the obvious counterargument that elections have very real results). There’s also the argument that these ninjas achieve similar ends when they open source tools built with the investments generated by the “vast amounts of cold hard cash” generated by US presidential elections. These tools, like improved election day reporting on the Ushahidi platform, could be and probably will be redeployed for general civic use.

I’m confused, though, when Tom’s argument focuses on the simple fact that, in a campaign, you have opposition working against you and your team. Many of the voter outreach tools the Obama campaign built this cycle will live on in various incarnations, including some version of trickle down or transfer to the opposition’s side. The rival campaigns’ technological contributions worked to dilute one another’s chances of winning the election, but I don’t see a strong argument that their tech cancels out the other team’s contributions or general progress.

TripAdvisor and its ilk made the customer stronger in their relationship with hotels, but the battle is hardly over. The many services and products we rate and review are learning to game these systems, whether by creating bots, paying people on Mechanical Turk, or just providing better customer service at key moments (which is clearly a win of some sort for the customer). There’s far more money involved in hospitality industry booking than there was in the entire US Presidential race, and it, too, is a technological arms race.

Partisan tech might drive competition in the election season, but in general, I feel that the left-right political divide weakens the political tech industry by cutting the potential market in half. I’ve always had the impression that one factor causing innovation in political technology to lag significantly behind the commercial technology industry is potential market value. Political campaign tech is a subcategory of the much larger tech industry, and was until recent years, a sleepy backwater of the tech industry. The fact that the market for campaign technologies and its suppliers is, in many places, split in half by the non-economic force of partisanship only contributed to the lack of real investment that drives commercial tech. This split also, in my opinion, allowed some mediocre consultants and products to maintain market dominance where, in a more competitive market, they would have been unseated. Experienced political technologists on the left and right can likely point to tools or people on the other side they’d love to have access to for their campaign.

There are probably many other reasons that campaign tech traditionally lags behind commercial tech, like a political campaign culture that for far too long saw developers as IT managers here to fix your printer, and boom and bust election cycles. And Obama’s tech team, in 2008 and 2012, has clearly made huge strides in changing this reality. But otherwise, I think partisanship’s division of market value is at least a factor. Why else would social change companies like NationBuilder and risk their roots as generally progressive firms, and frankly, certain large-but-partisan clients, to pursue a much larger, richer global market far outside of US politics? And isn’t this how they’ll scale to the levels Tom challenges them to?

I’ll now await pushback from much more experienced political technologists.