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Conversations from 'Who to Hire'

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, April 7 2010

The guide we released yesterday, "Who to Hire: The PdF Political Technology Guide," is based on hours of interviews I conducted with company representatives of political technology firms, and their clients.

Talking with people about the vendors they've used was a look under the hood at software development, and in how that software is applied by organizations of all sizes. Here are some snippets of the kind of details I picked up while at work on this guide:

As the pre-bill-passage health care debate was nearing its close in Congress, I asked Levana Layendecker, the director of online campaigns for Health Care for America Now, about her experience with Revolution Messaging.

"What Revolution Messaging does for us is an IVR system through a toll-free number," Layendecker said. "And this is mostly for folks who we're working with who don't use the web a lot."

IVR, or Interactive Voice Recording, is more or less the same technology you're interacting with when you call the customer service line at a big corporation. It can understand commands dialed in through a touch-tone phone. HCAN uses it to get people calling their elected official, Layendecker told me: The caller calls a 1-800 number and puts in their ZIP code. The system Revolution Messaging built then determines that person's elected officials, based on the code. If it's a ZIP code that shares multiple elected officials, there are some follow-up interactions to try and nail down which one to call.

The part Layendecker really likes is that the system Revolution set up for HCAN sends their callers straight to the congressional office, rather than the switchboard at Congress. That switchboard can get clogged up on heavy call days.

At an event Personal Democracy Forum co-hosted with CUNY Baruch late last year, for instance, Katrin Verclas of MobileActive described following up on a call-your-congresscritter request she received via text message, only to have trouble getting through on account of how many people were participating.

When I was writing about Liberty Concepts, one of their projects in particular stood out to me: The Great Schlep. So I got in touch with consultant Ari Wallach, who worked on the campaign (in which Sarah Silverman, in a YouTube video, implored young Jews to go to Florida and convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama).

On a five-week timetable, Liberty Concepts built a website with tools like a peer-to-peer networking feature allowing volunteers to bring friends into the campaign. The Schlep website had videos of Obama delivering speeches on subjects of Jewish interest, pro-Obama talking points for conversations with unconvinced Jewish parents and grandparents, links to its Facebook group and a website to help make travel plans, and an online donation form.

Wallach says Liberty Concepts powered the front end of The Great Schlep website, but it was designed by another firm. He added that the social networking tools and other features on the site were built to spec based on requests from progressive Jewish activist Mik Moore.

"[They're] really good at taking basically a scribbled-out idea on the back of napkin, and turning it into a finished, fully engineered, fully operable application," Wallach said of Liberty Concepts.

In November 2009, the Schlep's Facebook group still had over 21,000 members, but reports indicate not exactly all of them turned the idea into action.

I also had a chance to talk to another behind-the-scenes guy from the Obama campaign: Mark Sullivan, the founder of Voter Activation Network. Sullivan described a central VAN database that communicated with the Blue State Digital-built social network, the campaign website, and all the campaign-generated walk and call lists — including the ones that volunteers downloaded online. Everything you did on MyBO would eventually find its way into the same record where the campaign was already storing what it knew about your voting history, past volunteering and donations.

CMDI's John Simms says his firm processed $1.3 billion in online contributions last year. And while people like Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn at Engage and David All's David All Group attracted headlines for how they handled fundraising for people like Marco Rubio and Scott Brown, it was CMDI working behind the scenes. In Rubio's case, the Senate hopeful's campaign hired David All, which built a fundraising widget that used Kimbia software. Behind that, says Simms, CMDI was processing the transactions. For Scott Brown's insurgent campaign, staffers were using Engage's iContribute software — which was passing the donation information to CMDI in real-time for processing record-keeping, according to Simms.