Data Democracy: NationBuilder Empowers Nonpartisan Campaigns

In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first U.S.presidential candidate to use a campaign website. By 1996, almost every presidential candidate had one. Less than 20 years later, the Internet and how candidates and causes use it has become the single most important tool for any campaign. Everyone from dog catcher to the President of the United States is online.

The concept behind the digital revolution has been driven by the idea that access to information should be ‘open’ and equally accessible. In terms of politics and government, it’s referred to as open data.

Up until recently, however, the political world had yet to embrace the ideals behind open data. Everything from voting technology to publicly available voter files have historically been reserved for a select political elite.

As is the case with most things in politics, the Democratic and Republican Parties became the gatekeepers to meaningful political engagement, often by restricting access to campaign, fundraising, and other organizing tools to only their authorized party members.

But now that’s changing, and surprisingly enough it’s being driven by the ‘open’ market’s invisible hand.

A McKinsey & Company report estimated open data’s potential annual economic value to be $3 trillion worldwide. Likewise, the number of organizations embracing the ‘open’ model has grown significantly over the last decade.

Chief among them is NationBuilder, a nonpartisan community organizing platform founded in 2009 by entrepreneur Jim Gilliam. The platform (and voter data to use on it) is available to any cause or candidate, regardless of party affiliation.

In an interview for IVN, NationBuilder’s vice president of business development, Adriel Hampton, pointed out how the nonpartisan ‘open’ philosophy is not only a core company tenet, but it works as a business model as well. In 2014 alone, campaigns using NationBuilder raised over $240 million.

“We were nonpartisan from the very beginning,” he said. “We don’t want to determine who can and cannot access the tools to organize their communities or run for office.”

The ‘open’ model is a big contrast to services like DataBeacon — the GOP’s data network — and NGP Voter Activation Network (NGPVAN) for Democrats. Only party-friendly users can work with those platforms.

If current trends continue, however, relying on party affiliation may not be the future of political tech. As Hampton sees it, “If you look at the overall trends in voter registration, you’re seeing more and more people not identify with parties. So that means being hyper partisan as a vendor, you know, your market may be shrinking.”

NationBuilder isn’t alone in thinking an open approach to politics will pay off. The world of open data is growing and not just around political organizing. Since 2010, it has grown to include things like Code For America’s Brigade network and the latest Open Government National Action Plan; endeavors which all utilize the power of open data to improve government efficiency and accessibility.

The future success of these and other open data platforms comes down to improving efficiency.

“Technology will lead the trend in terms of where the best tools come from” said Hampton. “Technology does two different things: it makes things more efficient, and it makes things cost less. When you look at driving costs down to do effective organizing, especially in the political space, you’re going to see open platforms feed that.”

He’s seen how efficiency develops first-hand. NationBuilder encourages developers to tap its various application program interfaces (APIs), which are available to anyone and at no cost.

Ultimately, the benefits of an open system are reaped by not just NationBuilder itself, but each user who then gets access to new and innovative features. Closed systems like those used by the DNC and RNC don’t have the benefit of a Darwinian, organic ecosystem of digital competition like open ones do.

“If you have something that’s closed and very tightly held,” argues Hampton, “you’re just not going to get the kind of cross-pollination of best practices and people learning how to use these technologies that you will on a more open platform or open ecosystem.”

One of the most immediate benefits Hampton sees is at the local level. Low-visibility, down-ballot races, like school boards or water districts, typically generate low voter interest and nearly nonexistent media attention. As a result, such seats are typically won by those with the majority party nomination.

The open data economy is still in its infancy, but it is quickly becoming a cornerstone of 21st century democracy.
Alex Gauthier
So by lowering the technical and logistical constraints, running for office becomes that much more feasible for candidates outside the party system to become serious candidates. Over time, this would mean a potential influx of independent candidates growing out from local offices.

The open data economy is still in its infancy, but it is quickly becoming a cornerstone of 21st century democracy.

Socrata, a software development firm that deals in the public sector, released a 2014 Benchmark Report that surveyed over 900 self-identified government workers. The report showed over 80 percent expected to invest in open data initiatives in the next 6 months.

Whether one is campaigning for the White House or has already made it there, open platforms can be a powerful ally for nonpartisan causes.

Image: DigitalGenius