Democratic Tech Gathering Hypes Party's Data Unification Goal

GOP Claims Fostering Tech Competition Will Help Win Elections

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Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN
Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN

The Democrats have made a choice that could dictate how technology for campaigns and groups on the left is developed and disseminated for years to come.

On a drizzly evening in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday it became apparent that the party has decided on a top-down approach to the way in which local, state, congressional and presidential campaigns employ and share voter data for everything from door-knocking to targeted TV advertising.

The Republican party, on the other hand, says it favors a more competitive environment for tech development.

Around 200 digital-media evangelists on the left, most of them in their 20s and 30s, gathered at the intimate Woolly Mammoth Theatre on D Street Wednesday to schmooze with current and former colleagues and learn about upgrades to NGP VAN's software, the platform of choice for the Democratic National Committee, other party organizations and big advocacy groups like Ready for Hillary.

The software unveiling was made in partnership with the DNC's Project Ivy initiative. The party named "The VAN" its official developers' portal. It's become the de facto hub for voter file data accessed by left-leaning campaigns across the country to manage door-to-door contact lists for canvassing and ingest new data gathered by volunteers as they meet with voters. The DNC and Ready for Hillary -- the group building a large supporter database to assist former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she jumps into the 2016 presidential race -- are among thousands of clients using the platform.

Unlike typical political or corporate software update events, the shindig drew a lively, rapt crowd. Attendees swigged free beer and wine and proudly displayed lapel stickers proclaiming, "I [heart] VAN." When certain new tools or features were announced, the audience cheered. At times the scene resembled an annual Apple event or TED talk. Three NGP VAN execs spoke including the firm's CEO Stu Trevelyan. Company staff quipped about how Mr. Trevelyan had considered donning a Steve Jobs-ian black turtleneck instead of the untucked blue buttondown he wore.

The added features presented at the event allow for things such as better integration with some data analytics vendor platforms and matching of social media handles to voter data to capture what individual voters say about candidates on Twitter or Facebook, then aim messages based on that information via email or text. The new offerings are labeled with titles such as Pipeline, Relay and ActionTag.

There remains a relatively competitive landscape for tech innovation on the left. However, the DNC's official alignment with NGP VAN could create significant momentum for a unified way Democrats use data to evaluate and communicate with voters. The party has essentially christened a single platform upon which other app developers, ad platforms and analytics software must integrate or risk obsolescence.

The decision reflects the party's broader mission to get candidate campaigns and organizations on the left geared up to use the latest tools in a cohesive manner. As the midterm election approaches, both Democratic and Republican organizations have held tech training events for statewide and congressional staffers so they can pass along the information to campaign staff and volunteers. On the left much of that training has revolved around NGP VAN's platform.

Lots of small tech firms are vying to serve the growing market as elections become more digital and data-centric. But those guiding the right say they favor an environment that fosters more vendors and software options, rather than one that could deter new players from entering the field.

For instance, in April the RNC distributed to state parties its own in-house app for volunteers to use while canvassing door-to-door, known as Beacon. Yet it also enables its data to flow to other so-called "walk apps" developed by outside companies.

Compared to the Democrats, the RNC has been quieter about what developers and data scientists in its D.C. and Silicon Valley offices are doing to restructure the way data flows through its pipes and how certain technologies sync with its data systems.

A visit to the digital and data center housed at the RNC headquarters in D.C., however, indicated that work is being done.

"The Republican party is committed to providing the data and technology that facilitates an open platform for our campaigns that supports them to create the products and tools that our campaigns need to win," said Chuck Defeo, chief digital officer at the RNC, speaking at the party's headquarters the morning after the NGP VAN event.

The midterms in November will be a beta test for the parties and the tech vendors serving them when it comes to implementing the next iterations of their campaign tools. The true contest lies in the 2016 presidential race.

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