With 'Dashboard,' Obama Campaign Aims to Bridge Online and Off

The tool has more horsepower under the hood than might be obvious, but it still depends on volunteers willing to spend lots of their own time.

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The Obama campaign today launched its much-anticipated Dashboard platform, described by National Field Director Jeremy Bird in a video as "the organizing network of supporters helping to reelect Barack Obama." Read The Wall Street Journal for a healthily skeptical take. (No, a website does not a president make.) But with that out of the way, we're freed up to consider what's meaningful and potentially powerful about the work they've done.

Log into Dashboard, tell it where you live, and it connects you to your "neighborhood team," the basic building block of the Obama organizing model famously espoused by Harvard's Marshall Ganz. From there, you get your call tools -- empowering you to ring up your neighbors and sing to them the virtues of the Obama health-care bill, your event-planning tools; and inspirational content living under the banner of "Get Fired Up." There's information on your assigned team leader and other team members. And, importantly, there's a section labeled simply "Numbers." For a campaign that eats metrics for breakfast and data for lunch, this is where the action is. It's a means of tracking all that it is a volunteer does for a campaign, from calls made to voters registered to team meetings attended.

On the surface, there's not much about Dashboard that particularly impresses. Indeed, to those who track this sort of thing, Dashboard can seem retrograde -- where's the ability to form groups that MyBarackObama had way back in 2008? But look deeper. Much of the innovation of Dashboard lives under the hood, and won't become apparent until the system fills up with activity. Critically, Dashboard does something that MyBO and other '08 tools never managed to do: understand online and offline volunteering as parts of the same whole. "It's about treating a person as a person no matter what they're doing," says someone knowledgable about the Dashboard project.

For all the innovation it gets credited with, the Obama campaign still pivots around the same drudgery campaigns have long pivoted around.

That might seem easy and obvious to those of us on the outside. In 2012, we're really still drawing a distinction between phonebanking someone does in a poorly lit field office somewhere and phonebanking done from the comfort of his or her home? But it's a quirk of the Ganzian organizing model, centered on the so-called "snowflake," where individuals are collected into small groups that build up to a greater whole: Field organizing the Obama way is still very much structured around geography. All that happens on the Internet is wonderful, sure. But if it doesn't feed into the campaign structure, if it doesn't funnel into the assigned responsibility of some team leader somewhere, it isn't fully captured and put to use. For all the attention that Obama 2008 got for tapping into the Internet, much of the enthusiasm generated there was left to dissipate.

Dashboard aims to solve that.

Now, if all goes well for the campaign, calls made online and offline get counted to the same end. For the field organizer responsible for hitting voter contact targets, that means that the supporter who never shows their face in a field office is, newly, a valuable commodity. More than that, the work of a supporter who gives $200 at a campaign rally in California, goes doorknocking in New York, and makes some calls through his laptop isn't split across three different databases. Their efforts are aggregated, and get credited to their neighborhood team. The team leader -- very often a volunteer herself -- gets to bundle those efforts and roll them up to the next level of the campaign in meeting her goals. "If you're a neighborhood team leader," says Bird in his video, "your day-to-day tasks are going to get a whole lot easier." If true, it makes the (monetarily) uncompensated hours put in to reelect the president a more sensible transaction. The tasks of field organizing, which often involving interrupting the day of someone you don't know, become slightly less painful for all involved. In sum, less effort is wasted.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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