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The New and Not-So-New In Obama's "Dashboard"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, May 23 2012

President Obama's 2012 campaign unveiled its organizing dashboard Wednesday

President Obama's re-election campaign unveiled its campaign "dashboard" Wednesday with a renewed focus on metrics and team-building that the campaign clearly hopes will enable it to better manage its massive base of volunteers and field organizers in what is expected to be a closely-contested presidential election.

The Obama team's 2012 social network retains many of the features of the network from 2008, but also includes new ones resulting from the experiences of that initial breakthrough campaign. The most noticeable changes: A sharper focus on individuals, their team units and their performance, the addition of the "Numbers," section, an activity stream that looks a bit like Facebook's activity stream, and a lack of a fundraising component.

"They’ve taken a lot of the best of what we imagined, and put it all together,” said Judith Freeman, co-founder and executive director of the New Organizing Institute in Washington, D.C. and a veteran of Obama’s 2008 campaign. “They’ve taken everything we’ve learned since 2008 in offline and online campaigning, and built it in there.”

Obama's 2008 campaign was marked by its unusual decision to allow grassroots supporters to take the lead in states where the campaign didn't have any resources. Many of Obama's 2008 supporters used the freeform social networking tools provided by the Obama campaign -- most notably its listservs -- to find each other and organize organically. The result was that once Obama campaign officials did arrive to set up a field office, they found a pocket of support they could plug into.

While much of the growth was organic at that time, it could also be chaotic and unsynchronized. The Obama campaign worked to change that, but it couldn't always do that in time. This time around, the network looks to build on the work of some Obama veterans that left and formed a company called National Field, the work of which was profiled by techPresident's Nancy Scola back in May 2011.

Campaign finance filings show that the Obama campaign is a client of National Field. The company's software advertises its product as something that can help managers within organizations to coach and enhance the performance of their staffers more efficiently. According to the campaign, some National Field ideas are incorporated in Dashboard, but Dashboard was designed and created in-house.

Unlike in 2008 when Obama started out as a long-shot Democratic candidate competing against the Democratic establishment, this time around, Obama is the establishment, with a huge campaign staff and a network of field offices. One way that is manifesting itself in the organizing software is that a team of people already awaits those who sign into the dashboard in the "My Team" section, which is organized by neighborhood.

Purely for science, I signed in on Wednesday to check out the platform. I found that I'd been assigned to the Sunset/Richmond neighborhood team of San Francisco, which included a picture of Obama on a stage, a section of a Google map on the left showing a few blocks in the Richmond district and links to the pages of the neighborhood team leader Susan Pfeifer and the regional field organizer Leslie Smartt.

The main "Story" on my page describes the geographical area that's covered by my neighborhood team and a description of the group's phonebanking activities. Obama for California's Twitter feed is integrated on the left hand side of the page, and in the center under the main story is a listing of events in my neighborhood and a listing of "active" members of the group.

The numbers section includes "hard numbers" and "soft numbers" subsections. These are the numbers racked up by volunteers and are measured by the number of one-on-one meetings held, volunteer shifts scheduled, call attempts, phone conversations held, volunteer shifts completed, new e-mail addresses collected, and team meetings held. Views of the activity log can be sorted by day, week, month, year and by the entire length of the campaign. Soft numbers involve notes on the campaign process by volunteers.

The Obama campaign sent out notes to supporters Tuesday evening and held online trainings for volunteers to teach them how to use the network. The campaign has also been holding trainings for staff and volunteers on how to make the most of commercial social networks such as Facebook and Twitter too.

A former member of the 2008 campaign who's looked at the new network noted that one advantage of the new system is that it does a better job of tying campaign organizers to volunteers, and volunteers to each other, to see exactly what is being accomplished, which was not possible across the board on myBo in 2008.

"But now organizers can get in touch with self-selected volunteers pretty immediately," he noted. "One of the things that myBo didn’t do was organize teams. You could start a group or join, but there was no dashboard that reported how other members of the team were doing."

For example, there was no way team members could see that another member of the team had made for example, 150 phone calls on a Saturday and try to compete to catch up.

The big question is whether as many people will get involved this time around on the grassroots level as in 2008, and on what terms.

Many supporters used myBo's listservs extensively in 2008 and continued to do so even after the presidential election. While the Obama campaign's vendor Blue State Digital has not shut those listservs down, they're not accessible on the campaign's new Dashboard. (The campaign promises that it's going to enable supporters to create their own listservs again this time around.)

Some supporters say that they're not averse to meeting new people on the new Dashboard system, but they're happy with the old way of doing things, and with working with the existing network of friends that they've made on the old listserv system.

Nancy Cronk is a long-time Obama supporter and Democratic activist who lives near the city of Aurora in Colorado. She still uses the "Coloradans for Obama" listserv, which has shrunk from its peak membership of 1,300 during the 2008 presidential election to its current membership of 200.

“I know there are resources available to us in the new system," Cronk said. "But for those of us who’ve been on there for four years, there’s no point for us to only use the new system. We might use the new system and make new friends, but we have a good strong network that we’re not going to leave."