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Grassroots Republicans Are Not Waiting for the RNC To Revamp Their Digital Strategy

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, June 13 2013

Several members of the Republican Party rank and file aren't waiting around for the GOP to reinvent itself on the technological front. They're organizing events themselves to explore what a tech-enabled GOP might look like for the 2014 cycle.

With its hire of Facebook engineer Andy Barkett as its new chief technology officer last week, the Republican National Committee is doing its best to demonstrate that it is slowly but surely making good on its plan to overhaul its operations after a disastrous 2012 election cycle. But some party faithful say they're part of a critical step: Changing the party's technology culture, not from the top down, but the bottom up.

"People need to stop waiting for the national party to give them permission to do something," said Katie Harbath, Facebook's manager of public policy and the former head of digital for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "You just need to start doing something, and seeing whether it's taking hold or not."

So, activists have organized a pair of hackathons that will take place on both coasts on the weekend of June 22. One of them, RevoltDC, has been organized by Andrew Hemingway, a political and technology entrepreneur based in Bristol, New Hampshire, and a friend, Lara Aulestia, director of business development at the digital behavorial marketing company Resonate Networks. The other, "Liberty Hackathon," sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute, is taking place at the headquarters of StumbleUpon, a social link-sharing service, in San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood.

RevoltDC, billed as a non-partisan event, wants coders to come and build prototypes for new ideas in social media, grassroots organizing, fundraising and political voter data. There's a $2,500 prize for the best prototype, and $1,000 for the best projects in four sub-categories. The judges include Harbath; Tom Lee, director of the Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation; Rachna Choudry, one of PopVox's co-founders; Mack McKelvey, CEO and Founder of SalientMG, a digital marketing company; and Pete Erickson, CEO of MoDev. The Liberty hackathon is a two-day affair and starts on Friday, June 21. The best idea in that hackathon will win $5,000 and a chance for further investment. The judges in this event include the entrepreneur and investor Scott Banister, Caplinked CEO and entrepreneur Eric Jackson, 3taps CEO and entrepreneur Greg Kidd, and DevBootcamp, Everlane Co-founder Jesse Farmer, and Palo Alto's Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental.

Harbath has been vocal online in trying to get the RNC to leverage information and technology to organize itself most efficiently. She's part of a larger informal group in Washington, DC who have long been concerned about the RNC's obsolescence. Earlier this year, she and a group of other Republicans, including Engage's Patrick Ruffini, Eventbrite politics and government manager Chad Barth, The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity's Vice President Erik Telford, and East Meridian Strategies' Partners Cary Evans and Jon Seaton, founded The Empower Action Group. They intend the non-profit group to be the Republicans' answer to the progressive left's New Organizing Institute by providing conservative activists with both digital and organizational training all over the country.

The group is planning to get its first sessions up and running at RevoltDC. The plan is to have peers teach each other skills that they possess and the others lack, and also to use Code Academy to teach political operatives basic coding skills.

"While the programmers are hacking, we're going to do morning and afternoon sessions for people who want to start learning the basics of coding, like the basics of PHP, or learning how to connect to an API, small stuff that they can go and take back to the office, whether it's an official, or a campaign, or whatever it might be, and still participate in the beginning and the end of the hackathon as part of Empower Action," Harbath said.

Harbath said that she got the idea for the training sessions when she went through her own a couple of weeks ago at Facebook's headquarters as part of the company's women's leadership month activities. She did some training through Code Academy, and benefitted from some help from some Facebook engineers who were on hand to answer any questions. She is going to bring the same setup to the RevoltDC hackathon.

Sunlight and PopVox and the Republican fundraising company CMDI will be providing data for the hackers to build applications around for RevoltDC. Hackers at the Liberty hackathon in San Francisco will have access to voter files provided by the California Republican Party, Facebook, 3taps, the Center for Responsive Politics' Open Secrets' database, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)'s Project Madison, Sunlight, Aristotle and SendHub.

The California hackathon is being organized by Aaron Ginn, who gives his title at StumbleUpon as "growth hacker," and SendHub Co-Founder Garrett Johnson. Ginn worked on Mitt Romney's digital team during the 2012 presidential election, and is part of a network of Republicans who have been very critical of the way the RNC has operated. In December, he wrote his own detailed, no-holds barred, 13-page assessment of what went wrong for the RNC and Romney's digital team during the election, and how those problems could be rectified, complete with a timeline and plan for a digital team build-out. Ginn says the Republican party can find tech talent not only in Silicon Valley, Texas and Colorado, but also in Utah.

Tech is about disruption, and the party should focus on the grassroots with the best idea and best delivery, Hemingway said in an interview. He himself is in the midst of two projects to build new tech products. One of them is a voter contact system for local Republicans political candidates in New Hampshire, and the other is a social fundraising system called Grassloot, scheduled to launch this August. "I think the RNC should be encouraging different ideas and when something shows some promise, put a little money into it."