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Can Case Studies and Code Chunks Help Open the Democratic Party?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, August 11 2010

This afternoon, the Democratic Party unveiled to the world a new site called Open.Dems, online at Open.Democrats.org. The ambition of the new site is to transform the Democratic Party ever more fully into an open-source organization -- open-source in the technical sense of the term, yes, as in participants in the world of collaborative computer program; but "open-source," too, in a looser sense, as in organization committed to a let's show-folks-how-this-works ethos, aimed at raising the level of the game out beyond the walls of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

"We're not giving away all the special sauce," says the DNC's Greg Greene. "Just some of it."

Open.Dems, at launch, consists of three main interrelated projects. The first is a home for the APIs [?] the Democratic National Committee's in-house development teams have built, and hope to build in the future, APIs like the ones opening up the DNC's Raise Your Vote voter registration and tracking initiative (profiled here) to state parties, Democratic candidates, advocacy organizations, and more.

The second is a clearinghouse for the various chunks of elegant computer code that the Democrats' developers have built. One flagship bit of elegance is some Rails-based coding called "Lock Box," which allows developers to tie together multiple APIs in a way that, explains Nathan Woodhull, director of the DNC's Innovation Labs, is more intuitive than has been heretofore widely available to developers. The DNC's Labs team, consisting at the moment of four developers, has as its mission cooking up ideas for how online organizing can be done better. Some ideas work. Others don't. And that's okay, says Josh Hendler, the DNC's Director of Technology. "Things are going to fail ninety percent of the time," he says with a shrug of the shoulders. "It's great if things work ten percent of the time."

The third component of the new Open.Dems is a blog, but one with a specific mission: to turn the DNC's new media and development work from inward-facing to outward-facing. Posts include the results of the Democratic Party's A/B testing of website splash pages, and notes on where the DNC has found "Donations" work best when it comes to email communications. (Sometimes, says DNC online writer Erica Sagrans, the somewhat counterinutitive answer is 'nowhere.' ) The idea, explains Hendler, "is to talk about technology in a way that we haven't talked about technology before."

The Open.Dems site has an internal implication, says DNC staffers. The site pulls together many of the components that fall under the purview of the Democrats' new media shop, lead by DNC New Media Director Natalie Foster. The website opens up the possibility of a gathering point for the work of the tech, Labs, new media, targeting and other DNC teams that aim to use new tools to accomplish the work of the Democratic Party.

When asked, Hendler and other staffers are quick to make the case that the Open.Dems open-source push isn't in any way a challenge to the sort of state-by-state party building popularized under former DNC Chair Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy. "These things aren't mutually exclusive," says Hendler. The party works with state parties and local candidates on data, technology, and development. The Open.Dems tools and techniques, say staffers, complement those efforts. Aware of the possibility that even in the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom world of open data and open-source code, cultivation has its place, Hendler explains that, "one thing we've definitely realized is that an important component of this work is outreach."

Open.Dems, and the DNC's open-source push, opens up a tantalizing possibility: might the outside world get a peek inside the Organizing for America effort that grew out of the 2008 campaign, and in particular the MyBarackObama online organizing tools and multi-million-member email list that the campaign has leased to the DNC? Hendler acknowledges the possibility, but implies that it hasn't been much discussed.

(On a related note, I took the opportunity to put to Foster and OFA Deputy Director Jeremy Bird a favorite question of mine: why's Organizing for America still housed at the domain name BarackObama.com? The question doesn't seem to have been a focus of much debate, beyond some thoughts on the high-level of Google juice and public notice that the campaign-spawned domain name has accumulated. Both Foster and Bird nodded at the suggestion that Obama, the man, continues to serve as the "vessel" for the OFA movement. And beyond that, Foster pointed out that OrganizingforAmerica.com works too.)

Go ahead and check out the new Open.Dems here.