Berkeley Technophiles Launch Campaign Software Revolution

By RICHARD BRENNEMAN of the Berkeley Daily Planet (8-13-04) Dan & Henri pictureThe newest revolution to emerge from Berkeley may seem quieter—even geekier—than those surrounding People’s Park and the Free Speech Movement, but its architects hope its effects will prove even more enduring in reshaping the fabric of the American body politic. Henri Poole, the organizer of presidential contender Dennis Kucinich’s Internet campaign, and Dan Robinson, who ran the national Meet-Up list for Howard Dean’s campaign have come up with a piece of software they believe will bring political power back to the neighborhood and community. What's even more revolutionary is that it’s free and open source—meaning users can modify it to suit their needs. Dubbed AdvoKit, Tools for a New American Politics, the software package is currently in the beta release phase, where users are field testing the program to work out the bugs before it goes into general release next month just as campaigns launch their intensive get-out-the-vote campaigns. The two self-confessed geeks came up with the idea last year at an emerging technologies conference attended by campaign computer specialists, including representatives of the Kerry campaign. “We were having the same problems in the Dean and Kucinich campaigns, and we were interested in working together on more e ffective organizing tools,” Poole said. “The big issue in organizing around the war was to get people to knock on doors, to talk to their neighbors, so find out if they were voters or non-voters, likely or unlikely voters, activists or non-activists,” sa id Robinson, “and then concentrating on the last 48 hours before the election—which is where the Republicans have been best at. “Our big concern was what’s missing, what technological piece is missing to organize an effective campaign. Resoundingly, peop le across the country told us there was a special need for software to enable neighbor-to-neighbor activity—and that, ideally, it should be freely distributed, easy to use, and free.” So Poole and Robinson set to work. A key insight came from Williamstown, Mass., where key property taxes carried sunset provisions, forcing activists to wage anew hard-won battles fought to maintain key community services. Activist Pat Dunleavy came up with a strategy he dubbed the Friend to Friend System. While tradition al campaigns have handed lists to volunteers and dispatched them to work door-to-door through blocks and neighborhoods, Dunleavy forged a system relying on the individual social networks of each volunteer. “There’s a much greater likelihood that people will listen to people they know, rather than some stranger who comes knocking at their door,” Robinson said. “He would get 30 or 40 volunteers together and show them the lists, then ask them to identify the people they knew and work on them,” Poole said. “His numbers went way up, and they were constantly growing and the numbers of likely voters identified went way up. Volunteer burnout went down, too, because it’s a lot easier for most people to talk to friends,” Robinson added. “It’s like watering root s that are already there,” said Poole. So it’s no surprise that Dunleavy’s become actively involved with AdvoKit. Poole and Robinson offered a quick demonstration for a curious reporter, who found himself amazed at the software’s ease of use and potenti al beyond the confines of electoral politics. “Volunteers can take specific tasks as prioritized by the campaign, and their profiles are continuously updatable. There are options, with dates and schedules, and it allows them to keep track of their contacts,” Robinson said. “You can organize functionally or geographically, and you can mix and match.” Managers can keep track to ensure that volunteers fulfill their tasks and submit their reports, and quickly develop a picture of the campaign as it unfolds. “Because you’ve got all this interaction, anyone who seriously tries to game the system is going to be easily and quickly found out,” Robinson said. “You can see who the performers are and they get immediate feedback.” Existing commercial software mimics the top downward organization of traditional campaigns. The lower end packages cost between $5,000 and $10,000 and the most expensive packages cost between $50,000 and $100,000 per state. As their work on AdvoKit progressed, Poole and Robinson began to see their software’s broader potential. “In the [Democratic presidential] primaries, what was completely disruptive to the democratic process was that as soon as a candidate dropped out, their organizations would disappear along with all of their too ls and networks,” Poole said. “With software that’s free and easy to use and with really cheap Internet hosting or organizations that host their own sites, we’re setting up the train tracks. “Come Nov. 3, people have their own systems in place, and no ma tter how the election turns out, they can use them to raise money for their PTAs, or to preserve the trees in their communities and to organize around any issue in their communities.” While the New York state Democratic Party has already adopted the soft ware and the Democratic National Committee is hearing AdvoKit’s pitch today [Aug. 13], Robinson and Poole are also encouraging nonprofits to adopt the package. Naturally, the notion of free software is greeted with some skepticism in fields where high-pr ice packages are the rule. “I was on the phone Wednesday with nonprofits across the country,” Robinson said, “and one woman kept asking what the hidden costs were. She asked about one thing, and I’d say, ‘No, there’s no charge,’ then she’d immediately co me back with, ‘Well how about this?’ She just kept throwing things out, and every time I’d say, no, there’s no charge.” With interest in AdvoKit growing nationally, the software developers said major announcements may be coming in the next two weeks. Their only hint: “A couple of organizations are thinking about rolling it out nationally,” Robinson said. And Robinson’s already thinking about one close-to-home application: organizing the PTA at the North Berkeley school his child attends. Technological activism comes easily to AdvoKit’s creators. Both have two decades in the information technology arena. Poole has deep ties with the Free Software Foundation, itself a radical movement in an era of Microsoft and Cisco, and Robinson has been active in poli tical organizing going back to the days of opposition to Ronald Reagan’s bloody covert actions in Central America. They earn their bread and butter through their Internet-based campaign consulting business, which specializes in strategy and project management, fundraising, get out the vote drives, website design and volunteer recruitment and other Web-based strategies and programs for progressive campaigns. CivicActions.com is based in Poole’s Ashby Ave. home, which once housed an earlier generation of Berkeley radicals—the Red Family commune of future state Senator Tom Hayden.