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

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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.

Think of Dashboard as virtual insulation, making sure that the enthusiasm folks are willing to pour into the practice of campaigning doesn't leak out of the cracks.

To make the model work, though, the campaign is going to need a near-battalion of super volunteers to stand up and take leadership roles. (Fort Greene for Obama, the geographic group my test account got channeled into based on my address, has an opening at the top.) But here, too, Dashboard makes some tweaks to the old '08 model that could make that process more efficient and sustainable over the long haul. It has to do with permissions, a web-design term that echoes in this case its normal meaning. Where MyBarackObama was largely binary, Dashboard is engineered on a hierarchy that functions on a need-to-know basis. A volunteer sees something different than a team leader does, and so on up the chain. Jeremy Bird gets an omniscient view. Everyone else in the organization, though, is treated to the data, metrics, and contact information that they need to know to fulfill their role, and no more.

For example, one compelling function of Dashboard is a little alert feed letting you know when someone has a message for you. National staffers like Bird can, presumably, message everyone in Dashboard-land at once. A team leader, though, seems restricted to pinging his team. Functionally, that limits the damage that the inevitable bad apple can do to the campaign. At the same time, it manages to blur the distinction between volunteer and paid staffer, an underappreciated change to the status quo that the Obama organization first tinkered with back in the '08 race.

The Obama field organizing model depends on volunteers trusted with a great deal of responsibility. Dashboard builds in checks to make sure that trust doesn't get out of hand.

Spend any real time on Dashboard, and a few things become apparent. One is that the tool is meant to appeal to the Obama campaign volunteer who is willing to put some real time in doing the drudgery that is the stuff of the Democratic campaign experience. (Republican presidential campaigns, in popular conception and in fact, focus far less attention on field organizing and getting-out-the-vote operations.) Another is that the Obama organization, for all the innovation it gets credited with, still indeed pivots around the same drudgery campaigns have long pivoted around: making calls, knocking on doors, holding a neighborhood meeting, maybe asking other folks for money. In this day-one roll out, at least, any of the tech-enabled action that commentators (guilty!) sometimes obsess over are secondary, if they're captured at all -- tweets, for example, are powerful only in that they help drive people to an event you might be throwing on behalf of the campaign. And the last: The sort of self-directed freedom of MyBarackObama that allowed the creation of a group opposing the then-candidate's stance on surveillance legislation, for example, isn't a priority in Dashboard. There's talk on the site of users being able in a future iteration to form their own groups, like an Irish Setter Lovers for Obama cell, for example. But there's every indication that that ability, too, will be tied to work and metrics that the campaign has embraced as the way you go about (re-)electing a president of the United States.

That's one early take on Dashboard. But one nice thing about online politics of this kind is that there's no need to trudge down to a local field office to see the Obama campaign in action. Anyone -- friend, foe, interested observer -- can poke around in their operation without having to leave wherever they might be. So poke around.

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Nancy Scola is an Atlantic correspondent based in New York City, whose work focuses on the intersections of politics and technology. She has written for Capital New York, Columbia Journalism Review, GOOD, New York, Reuters, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect. More

Previously, Scola was an aide on the U.S. House of Representative's Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a tech-policy staffer for a short-lived presidential campaign, and a nonprofit research designer in Washington, D.C.

For three years, she wrote and edited techPresident, a popular daily blog and email newsletter produced by the Personal Democracy Forum. While at techPresident, she co-created and helped to lead Vote Report '08, an early use of mobile technologies to conduct election monitoring.

Her passions include women's soccer, New York City history, cheese, copyright law, the genius of Lauryn Hill, New York State politics, long-form non-fiction, amateur radio, sharks and bears, political boundaries, magazines, maritime culture and waterfronts, how institutions work, typography, the African continent, and public parks.

Scola has two degrees in anthropology, was born in northern New Jersey, and, after about a decade in the nation's capital, now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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