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#PDF14 Preview: An Interview with Ethan Roeder

BY Sonia Roubini | Monday, April 14 2014

This #PDF14 speaker preview features Ethan Roeder, the Executive Director of the New Organizing Institute. Ethan joins PDF with over ten years of experience in political organizing and data, ranging from electoral and issue based campaigns to labor organizing, electoral research, and LGBT rights advocacy. He will be moderating a breakout panel on the state of the art of the Democratic Party’s digital organizing.

1. How did you come to be interested in tech and its impact on society?

I'm not into tech, I'm into problem-solving. I'm the opposite of an early adopter- a reluctant adopter? But my interest in problem-solving and the accident of my time on Earth coinciding with the rise of the internet and big data have resulted in much of my work living in the realm of "tech." I frankly don't understand its impact on society, but tech does appear to disrupt the established contours of power, and that's why I'm alive: to mess with people who have power.

2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?

Making people uncomfortable. We recently published a study at NOI in which we matched FEC expenditure data to a commercial voter file in order to answer the question "Who are the campaigners in America?" We found some troubling disparities in the staff composition of federal-level races. Among the more scandalous findings: Democratic campaigns pay African-American staffers at a rate of 70 cents on the dollar compared to White staffers. Not everybody liked our approach- I lost a funder over this study. But we're shining a light on an uncomfortable truth in the industry. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm not making somebody uncomfortable, I'm not doing my job.

3. If you've been to PDF in the past, what are your impressions?

Sadly I have never been to PDF before. I am very happy to be attending this year!

4. Your work focuses on using data to support campaigns. Do you think the use of data and databases has shaped the way that campaigns are being organized?

I don't think we've even begun to see the impact political data will have on the organization and execution of campaigns. If pressed I could probably name 250 or so people who are working in political data today. Less than ten percent of that number predate me in the industry, and I've only been doing it for only 7 years. My first data-specific campaign job was working for Obama in Vegas in 2007.

What I've seen so far is that data changes the dynamics of power on campaigns. It used to be the case that a campaign manager could surround herself by smart people who would whisper strategic intelligence into her ear. Decisions would be made at the top and filter down. What I saw on the Obama campaign was a flattening of this information hierarchy. In many cases our data directors in the states, working with their state-based teams, saw trends and opportunities in the data long before Chicago got their head around it. There was still plenty of command-and-control, but data is power and, more and more, that power is in the hands not just of the people in charge but of the people on the ground.

5. What are the key issues tech and politics/society to pay attention to at the moment?

Climate change. We're all going to bake to a crisp, the melted shells of our iPhones fused with our palms. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, right? Well we've got one now.