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NationBuilder Launches Its Version of an iOS for Movements and Campaigns

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, October 11 2013

NationBuilder founder Jim Gilliam visiting PDF office, 2009 (By Micah L. Sifry)

The Republican National Committee spent much of the spring of 2013 publicizing its ambition to build an in-house apps platform to enable technological innovations in their political sphere of technology, but it turns out that the non-partisan software startup NationBuilder may have gotten there first.

NationBuilder pulled the wraps off of its new application platform earlier this week with an impressive array of companies that have made use of NationBuilder's new application programming interface (API.) They include Organizer, which makes a canvassing tool that we covered last week, and a host of other apps that for activists and politically-engaged citizens from ActionSprout, Amicus, CallFire, Change.org, ControlShift, and MobileCommons.

The new API means that political campaigns, and the other kinds of organizations and community leaders that use NationBuilder to manage their relationships with their thousands of supporters, can automatically integrate the information they have about those supporters from the other toolsets into their NationBuilder account. That way they will have a holistic profile of each individual and their level of engagement.

"The way we thought about it is that for a lot of groups, NationBuilder is a CRM [customer relationship management] of record. It's where they keep the data on all of the people that they interact with, and so if they're adding Control Shift to anything they're doing, that information about a member who generated a petition will end up in NationBuilder, where they can use all of NationBuilder's other tools," said Nathan Woodhull, founder of Control Shift, a New York City startup. Control Shift provides organizations with software that enables supporters to start their own online petition drives.

For those who have never worked on a campaign, this integration might sound trivial, but Woodhull, who's worked at the Democrats' Organizing for America, recalls spending hours trying to get information about supporters in and out of disparate software systems and spreadsheets. Integrations such as this one means that they can be much more efficient in the way that they interact with the thousands of supporters of their causes and campaigns.

There are hundreds of non-profit causes and political campaigns that both use NationBuilder and tools such as CallFire, a cloud-based call center and voice messaging system based in Santa Monica. But not many of them may use both. The new integration looks as if it could be a good marketing opportunity for all involved. It also presents more competition for the incumbent universe of political CRM systems such as the Democrats' NGP VAN, which is generally used by larger political campaigns. The integration of the tools, and the access to voter files that NationBuilder is making available to potential customers, should also make the platform an increasingly attractive option for some campaigning politicos.

In an e-mail to users, NationBuilder Founder and CEO Jim Gilliam pressed the point home.

"NationBuilder was always meant to be a platform -- meaning something other developers can build apps on, like Facebook, Windows or the iPhone. It would be unprecedented. A non-partisan, open platform for apps combined with free access to the nationwide voter file," he wrote. "When I first became an activist 12 years ago, this is what I wanted. I was a hacker who wanted to make a difference, but the tech infrastructure didn't exist. Over the years, what has developed are two separate closed partisan infrastructures built around the Democratic and Republican parties. This has choked off any ecosystem of political apps from developing. But those days are behind us now."

Stu Trevelyan, CEO and president of NGP Van says in an e-mail that his company has offered API integration for years. Perhaps, but now there's another vendor that does too, which may empower party outsiders to move more swiftly to challenge the existing orthodoxy -- even if they don't have access to the giant proprietary databases on voters that party insiders using NGP VAN do.