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"Organizer," the Software Company That Wants To Make Campaign Field Offices Obsolete

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, April 16 2013

Organizer Founder Ralph Garvin, Jr. took the drudgery of his 2008 campaign experience and turned it into a startup.

If people-powered, neighbor-to-neighbor campaigns are the future of political persuasion, as President Barack Obama's former campaign manager Jim Messina suggests it is, then the practice is in need of a serious upgrade.

While Obama for America gained a reputation for technological savvy, much of its field operations were decidedly low-tech. Many volunteers went door-to-door with paper, clipboards and pens, not Facebook or Twitter.

The process of designing those large-scale canvassing campaigns, assigning groups of people to fan out over neighborhoods to glean the inhabitants' political leanings, and corralling the collated results back into databases so that they can be analyzed is still a hugely time-consuming process riddled with errors. That's something Ralph Garvin, a Stanford-trained computer scientist and technology entrepreneur, discovered — to his anguish — during the 2008 election cycle, which he worked on as a deputy field director.

"I was one step up from a super volunteer that cut turf, printed walk packets, knocked on doors, made phone calls, collected tons of paper and stayed up to two a.m. entering data, six days a week for months," he recalls.

Garvin hopes to change that with his company, Organizer, which aims to replace the whole cumbersome paper-based process with a mobile, cloud-based system.

"Though this was a life-altering experience," Garvin writes in an e-mail, "as a Stanford computer scientist, I was incensed that paper was the foundation of the most sophisticated, militaristically-precise ground operation in history."

Garvin and his co-founder, Anthony Gooran, have spent the past several years designing and building their system. It first went live in 2011 and got an early test in San Francisco from now-Mayor Ed Lee's campaign that year. Garvin and Gooran launched a new version last November, and just signed two big clients: Howard Dean's grassroots group, Democracy for America, and the labor-backed Working Families Party.

The Working Families Party has just signed on with Organizer to completely replace its paper-based canvassing system, and Democracy for America will use it to equip canvassers participating in its Purple to Blue program, which focuses on electing progressive Democrats to state legislatures across the country.

"Overall, we're very excited about the Organizer mobile technology," Nick Passanante, DFA's director of independent expenditures, said in an e-mail to techPresident. "It's a leap and bound above any other comparable software out there right now and is going to continually allow us to innovate the way we run neighbor-to-neighbor, grassroots campaigns to win in the toughest races around the country."

The New York WFP's organizing director, Mike Boland, was even more effusive.

“I’ve been running canvasses for more than a decade, and I’ve worked on every system out there," he said in an e-mailed statement. "Organizer is like nothing I’ve seen before. It eliminates paper and data entry, and give[s] us real-time feedback from the field, but that hardly scratches the surface. Even a small competitive advantages can make a huge difference in a close race. Imagine what a big advantage could do. Any progressive candidate that doesn’t at least consider using Organizer ought to have their head examined.”

Organizer's mobile app, Electionear, might be exciting to campaigners — but it's not the first incursion of mobile technology into field canvassing. As early as 2004, the Republican National Committee armed get-out-the-vote volunteers with Palm Pilots to canvas neighborhoods. In 2010, the Democratic political software vendor NGP VAN announced MiniVAN, which allows canvas managers and field workers to log their activity on their mobile phones. MiniVAN also first emerged in the 2004 on Palm Pilots. (NGP VAN CEO and President Stu Trevelyan told techPresident that it powered 19 million door knocks this past election cycle.) The Republican technology vendor Political Gravity, now known as Voter Gravity, also offers a hand-held canvassing system that dynamically updates in real-time. That system was used by Tea Party groups during the 2012 election cycle.

Garvin says Electionear is different because of how much it allows campaigners to do in real time. A canvasser's second question to a voter can depend on a voter's answer to question one, the third question on the answer to the second, and so on. Rather than fumbling from question to question by leafing through paper pages, he says, the mobile system automatically queues up questions and options for canvassers on the fly based on the answers they've entered. If the answers indicate, for example, that voters' sympathies lie in the opposite direction than those of the campaign's, the canvassers' app will simply end the questionnaire so that the canvasser can move on to the next house. When the interview is over, the results go back to the field office immediately — the canvasser doesn't have to wait until they get back to headquarters share their data, which Garvin hopes will put an end to hours-long data-entry marathons that are now the bane of many volunteers.

That time savings is a big draw for the Working Families Party, says Joe Dinkin, a spokesman. It also saves time another way: The whole process is managed electronically, rather than through reams of printed-out walk lists that have to be compiled, distributed to volunteers, collected and digitized by hand.

This contrasts with NGP VAN's MiniVan mobile canvassing system, which some have compared to an electronic version of a clipboard system.

"Getting data back from the field in real-time is the biggest selling point for Organizer over MiniVan," DFA's Passanante said. "By seeing response rates and question data come in live, we can make adjustments on the fly to our universes, to the number of canvassers we need in one precinct to another, as opposed to evaluating [the field effort] after the fact."

All that data collected from physical canvassers through Electionear can also be synched with campaigns' and issue advocacy groups' other existing databases that manage their relationships with voters and supporters. Electionear is system agnostic: It works with NationBuilder, NGP VAN and Salesforce.com.

Organizer's software also includes a predictive dialer, Garvin says, so volunteers can participate in phone banks from home. Predictive technology is so named because it calls multiple numbers at once on the premise that only one out of every few calls will reach a real, live human, then connects that person with the waiting volunteer.

Just as political organizers and fundraisers have tried to make the most of emotional moments with mobile technology by devising mobile donation systems that can enable giving at rallies and political events, Garvin thinks that canvas managers can update surveys based on news events and inopportune comments by politicians on the other side of an issue. In short, the potential possibilities of being able to use a mobile, cloud-based system to manage large bodies of people over large geographic areas seem endless for progressive organizers. Garvin sees it as a way to do everything from voter registration to a form of geography-based polling and fundraising to election day poll-watching. The system's GPS-tracking system, which enables volunteers and paid canvassers to navigate their routes, also enables managers to track individuals to tell if they really visited the houses that they said they did. Maps display black dots for missed houses, checks for addresses that really have been canvased, and exclamation marks for addresses where canvassers haven't been, but for which there have been responses recorded, indicating falsified data. Garvin, who calls this a "shenanigans detection system," also sees it as a way to manage and motivate teams by recognizing the distances they travel.

Passanante said that the GPS tracking system is another feature that gives Organizer an edge over NGP VAN's MiniVan mobile canvassing system.

"MiniVan is also not GPS-enabled, meaning that we can't track canvassers in the field while they're out there," he said. "It's a big downfall of the MiniVan, since we use that tracking data to better inform the way we cut turf and manage our volunteers and staff."

Trevelyan said that MiniVan is "GPS-aware," meaning that for every door knock, the app records the co-ordinates of where the data is entered, and it also records time-stamps along with entries.

"It would be a pretty small amount of work to take the GPS and time-stamp info and represent that in a tracking map," he said. "So far, it hasn't been a priority for clients like the Democratic National Committee and Obama campaign, and the rest of the vastly larger number of campaigns that chose MiniVan over any paid app like Organizer."

MiniVan is a 'free' app in the sense that campaigns can use the app alongside the other software licensed from the company. Campaigns that use Organizer's Electionear app pay monthly subscription fees based on the number of users. They also pay a separate monthly licensing fee for using Field Wizard, the field campaign planning and management software. The fees depend on the duration of the contract. Organizer currently doesn't charge any transaction fees for its fundraising component.

Organizer is Garvin's second company. He sold his first company, called Woosh, to Hewlett Packard in 2001 for an undisclosed sum. He started it with fellow computer science students while an undergraduate at Stanford. A programmer since his early teens, Garvin arrived at Stanford on scholarship, postponed his studies to focus on work, and did not finish his degree until years after he began working towards it.

Now, Garvin leads a nine-person crew working on Organizer from a modern office space in the seedy bowels of San Francisco's South of Market Area in San Francisco. They code away on what they hope to make part of the future of politics from above a first-floor Chinese garment factory and a ground-floor flea market.

The locale is interesting, but so are Organizer's politics: Garvin says he will only sell to progressives.

"My position is that I can't in good conscience give a substantial advantage to those that are determined to hurt people for large organizations and companies for profit," Garvin said in an interview in his office last week. "It's very hard for me to do that."

At the same time, there's a pragmatic angle to it, he said. It's questionable as to whether large-scale potential customers, such as big labor groups and political organizations such as Organizing for Action would consider using Organizer if it served both sides. What's more, he attributes part of the system's design to Danny Lesh, the organizing data coordinator of the Service Employees International Union, and to the political strategist Larry Tramutola.

That's an argument that the company's investors bought, and at least one of them totally understands. Organizer's lead investor and biggest supporter is former Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly, who lost the 2010 Democratic primary race for state attorney general to the eventual winner, and potential gubernatorial candidate, Kamala Harris. Other investors include Nate Bosshard, David Kittay — father of Organizer's co-founder, Bear, who is no longer with the company — Founders Fund, and Slow Ventures' Dustin Moskovitz.

President Obama's re-election campaign did not use Electionear during the 2008 cycle because it had already launched its paper-based canvassing system that was being tracked by a special numbered coding system by the time it was approached by Garvin and his team, Obama '08 alumni and 2012 national field director Jeremy Bird said during an impromptu chat on Sunday in Cupertino. Integrating a new system into the process just wasn't workable at the time.

However, with these new deals in place, the next presidential campaign will have had four years' worth of lessons learned incorporated into the software. Users are happy that those lessons aren't up for grabs for just anyone.

"Obviously we always prefer to keep the best innovations in the progressive family," said DFA's Passanante. "Its no secret that the Republicans have remained embarrassingly far behind Democrats in the way that we use technology and data to win campaigns -- heck, they couldn't even manage to keep their GOTV system from crashing on election day in 2012. It's pretty laughable. So, even though I doubt the GOP would ever be able to figure out how to implement software such as this successfully, we're clearly not interested in helping them start to even out that playing field by sharing our best practices. It's clear that Organizer shares our commitment to these values, and that is one of many reasons we chose their services this year."

This post has been updated. A veteran of progressive tech circles wrote in to note that MiniVAN's first appearance for iOS was in 2010, but it first appeared in the 2004 cycle for Palm Pilot.