Obama's Secret Weapon: Geeks. Lots of Them

by Doc Searls

We were lost in Boston's South End, looking for Thayer Street. Street signs are optional around Boston, and the locals didn't know either the street or our precise destination...

something called Gallery XIV. That was the site of a gathering to which we had been enticed by an email with the subject line, "WHAT SHOULD OBAMA'S PLATFORM BE ON THE INTERNET & DEMOCRACY -- JOIN THE DISCUSSION JULY 28, 7PM".

Fittingly, we got our best directional clues from Geeks Unknown, via Google Maps (hosted on a large sum of Linux servers somewhere in The Cloud) -- over a cell phone. Those vectored us down Harrison Street, where we walked until we found a sure sign that we had arrived: a wall of posters bearing the unmistakable faces of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama -- merged into one. Turns out Gallery XIV was featuring Abraham Obama:, described as "mash-up esthetics at the intersection of art, technology and politics".

The surreal quality of the setting was matched by the discussion itself, which went exactly as advertised, but was also compromised by three followers of Lyndon LaRouche, all determined to route conversation toward their own emphatic and unbending views -- mostly on issues far afield of "internet and democracy". From what I gathered, LaRouche himself hates the Net, and so did these guys. But they did provide a revealing contrast between the relatively open stances of the Obama campaign and the doctrinal absolutism of those who download their opinions from what you might call a closed source.

At the end we were pointed to a clipboard with a sign-up sheet and a polite request to become more involved; but there was nothing high-pressure or cookie-cutter about the meeting itself. Was that typical? Hard to say. But you can pick up a lot of clues just by comparing the Obama and McCain websites and how you can interact with them.

Back in June I began to do just that, as an assignment to write a long piece for the November issue of Linux Journal, which will hit the newsstands in late October, just before the election. The assignment began on June 3, when I got this email from my friend Jim:

The Obama campaign is looking for people who do big LAMP.
<http://my.barackobama.com/page/s/techinterest?foo>
(I love the 'foo' reference.)
Seems like a great LJ / LW story.
McCain's campaign runs Windows:
widget:~ jim$ telnet <http://www.johnmccain.com>www.johnmccain.com 80
Trying 64.203.107.147...
Connected to <http://www.johnmccain.com>www.johnmccain.com.
Escape character is '^]'.
HEAD /index.html HTTP/1.0
HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found
Content-Length: 1635
Content-Type: text/html
Server: Microsoft-IIS/6.0
X-Powered-By: <http://ASP.NET>ASP.NET
Date: Tue, 03 Jun 2008 22:58:07 GMT
Connection: close
Connection closed by foreign host.

The ad recruited "exceptionally talented web developers who want to play a key role in a historic political campaign and help elect Barack Obama as the next President of the United States." Recruits would "Introduce cutting-edge social networking and online organizing to the democratic process by empowering everyday people to participate on my.BarackObama". For this they required "A deep understanding of LAMP development processes and best practices", "Experience scaling large LAMP application", "Experience building complex applications using PHP and MySQL" with "deep knowledge of MySQL performance and query optimization" and "Advanced or expert CSS, Javascript, and AJAX skills" and "At least 5 years of professional web development experience".

The ad was hardly necessary. The Obama campaign has been in a buyer's market for good geeks since the beginning. And the company doing the buying was Blue State Digital, which is about as hot as a politically oriented tech company can get . Thanks to Blue State Digital (aka BSD, not to be confused with the operating system), the Obama campaign is one of the most well-oiled yet thoroughly decentralized campaigns ever run. Though centrally hosted, the campaign is"social" (in the literal and technical senses) to a near-absolute degree. More than any political following in history, Barack Obama's has become the electrical electorate, the connected constituency. Plenty of credit goes to the candidate and strategists at his Chicago headquarters, of course, but BSD is the outfit that put the rubber on the road, and there's a lot of it.

The results so far are astonishing. By the end of July the Obama campaign had raised more than $390 million dollars, most of it from more than a million online donors. At the current rate he might pass half a $billion by election day. BSD at last count tallied more than 75,000 campaign events and 2 million phone calls from individual volunteers.

Each of those volunteers has his or her own website at my.barackobama.com, better known to both BSD and the faithful as MyBO, or "mybo". The pages are uncomplicated and fast, yet packed with tools for user involvement. The term "grass roots action" is woefully insufficient to describe what MyBO enables. Instead it provides the boards, nails, hammers, saws and electric tools required for citizens to frame up whole new structures for both electoral politics and the governance that follows.

For an old hippie like me, who grew up in the Sixties, and who remembers the edge-of-war conflicts that tore up the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, this kind of political action -- positive, engaged and constructive -- is something of a dream come true. I'm reminded of Skoop Nisker's famous imperative: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own". Open source in a nutshell.

Not surprisingly, open source and free software are essential enablers of MyBO. According to Jascha Franklin-Hodge, co-founder and CTO of BSD, "We wanted to make it easy to create an event, schedule it, make it searchable, handle RSVPs, and for people to do their own fund-raising." For that they make heavy use of RSS, of mashable APIs (especially Google's and Yahoo's ones for mapping and geocoding. More:

The stack is LAMP: Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP. On the back end we use lots of open source libraries and tool kits. We use YUI, and Ext, which are javascript UI libraries. One of our developers is the creator of the Horde project, which is a big open source PHP framework.

We don't like to re-invent wheels. So, for example, we don't write our own database connection library. We're using ADOdb, which is one of the more popular ones for PHP, and python as well. We use PEAR, which is PHP's library of tools and utilities. We use PEAR modules for everything from sending email to doing caching... We use things like memcached. We use open source monitoring tools.

We use RSS all over the place: events, blogs... we use it to link parts of our own system internally, say to share information between two different client systems, or between two parts of our system. Wherever possible we try to build those interface points around accepted standards for interchange. If they need to be opened up, or if the client wants direct access to them, we say "go ahead and use whatever RSS library you have".

When I go to my MyBO web page and look for events within 25 miles of my zipcode near Cambridge, 93 come up. Here are a few I'll copy and paste:

  • Canvas carpool
  • Cambridge Ward 11 Convention Watch Party
  • Obama Mamas For Change
  • Watch Obama's acceptance speech with Drinking Liberally
  • Concert + Convention Party hosted by Somerville for Obama and the New England Steering Committee
  • Cambridge Expanding LGBT Campaign Team
  • March in the Allston-Brighton Parade
  • YDM Convention Watch Party
  • Brandeis Democrats and Students for Obama
  • Newton for Obama Phone Bank 9/7/08
  • Voter registration table at Allston Village Street Fair
  • BETTER COUNTRY...CLEANER NEIGHBORHOOD
  • National Anthem: Classical Musicians Unite to Elect Barack Obama (note: donation is required)
  • Mass Obama Pride Watch Party
  • Latinos for Obama
  • 22nd Annual Bobby Bell 5 mi Roadrace/Walk
  • Groveland Days Outreach
  • Veterans for OBAMA
  • Bread and Roses Festival
  • Hurrah for Bara!
  • Canvass in NH (w/Framingham carpool)
  • Potluck Gathering

Each event gets its own symbol on a Google map. You can do your own mashing via RSS, ICAL or KML files. The dashboard also features ways you can create messages, groups, blog posts and much more. I just counted a total of eighteen different ways an individual can engage with the campaign.

When I go to the McCain campaign website and look for events within the same 25 miles, 29 come up. Most all are appeals to join phone banks; although, as with Obama, many are convention-watching parties. (To be fair I tried the same on McCain's home turf in Phoenix, with similar results.) With McCain's campaign there is no equivalent of MyBO. You can join the campaign and become a contributor, of course. I signed up with both sites, so I get emails from both candidates and their campaigns. (FWIW, I'm a registered Independent.) But the Obama campaign is far more engaged and personal. True, the McCain campaign does feature some pretty well-crafted and even funny Web-only ads on its website. But it ain't the same.

According to a recent NPR story, Michael Powell, the former FCC chairman and a close advisor to the McCain campaign, "...hopes (McCain will) create momentum in all branches of government to foster 'a range of e-government initiatives.' That would include making more government services available online and hiring people with substantial tech experience to 'populate throughout the government.'"

Thing is, Obama's already doing that. The man has means for e-governance already in place. And geeks are the ones who put it there. And will continue to put it there, whether Obama wins or not in November.

In the next few days I'll be posting more on the Obama/Geek nexus, and especially on both candidates technology policies. I welcome your input as well, of course. Same goes for the Republican National Convention that's also coming up.