Blame it on the Howard Dean campaign–everyone else is–but technology isnt leaving politics. In fact, its finding steady acceptance on the other side of the fence, in public service and in civic administration of government services.
Tech folks will roll their eyes at the small steps that are being taken, but the use of computer technology and software by frugal government agencies has always lagged behind corporations. Political campaigns, which rely on volunteers and donated equipment, arent always tech-savvy. Its often been too difficult for them to train people to use what little software and support is available.
Thats changing. Take a tour–a virtual tour–of whats going on in Redwood City, Calif., the county seat of San Mateo County. Four years ago, at the height of the tech boom, Redwood City was a sleepy, working-class suburb on the fringes of Silicon Valleys growth and expansion. No more. The joint is wired to encourage political participation.
This year, San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum asked Farallon Geographics, a San Francisco-based mapping and data company, for help with a voter registration effort.
“Its a situation where one size doesnt fit all,” Slocum says. “What works in the Latino community doesnt work in the Chinese community.” San Mateo County, which has blocks of Filipino voters as well as Chinese- and Spanish-speakers, wanted a way to reach all of its residents as effectively as possible. But the agency wasnt sure what would work–or what was needed–in various parts of the county.
Farallon Geographics, which makes sophisticated mapping and tracking software, matched up census data about households with voter registration information. It produced maps and guides for the county that show where voter registration is lagging as well as information about the ethnic mixes in those areas.
“You really couldnt do this any other way, except with GIS,” says Farallon CEO Dennis Wuthrich. Well, you could, but it takes lots and lots of time. And effort. Anyone whos ever seen the war room of a political campaign is familiar with the color-coded, hand-painted maps and graphs that are used and reused as they try to identify voters. Theyre the creative artwork hanging in the halls and offices.
Wuthrich says the San Mateo voter project took Farallon about a week. The company was already under contract for other work for the county and San Mateo had kept its records up-to-date, making the project fairly straightforward and not too expensive. “It was almost anti-climatic,” he says. “It didnt take that much time.”
Speaking Voters Language
The results, of course, remain to be seen–Election Day is still more than a month away. But already, Slocum says the county has changed how it works to register voters. Instead of sending a letter and hoping for the best, its organized house parties and other places where people who speak the same language talk to their friends and neighbors about everything from requesting a ballot in the native language to figuring out how to fill out a ballot.
Coincidentally, a few doors down from the San Mateo County Courthouse, Dean campaign veteran Zack Rosen is hard at work on the other side of the fence, writing and developing software for, among others, political campaigns and civic organizations. Among them is Ira Ruskin,a former city councilman and mayor of Redwood City.
Rosen runs CivicSpace Labs, a nonprofit foundation. CivicSpace makes it easy for a group–with a lot of group activity going in different directions–to get online, stay online and coordinate online. The software is open source, so users can come and grab what they need from the CivicSpace site for free. The idea, of course, is to give candidates and organizations a low-cost tool to do what they need to do on the Web.
“Theres nothing else like this out there,” says Rosen, who is hosting a users and developers conference this weekend to hear from hard-core programmers about what needs to be changed, as well as from users such as Ruskin (if hes got the time) about what they need from an online campaigning site. It promises to be an interesting couple of days, Rosen says. “We have people champing at the bit.”
eWEEK.com Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.
Check out eWEEK.coms Government Center at http://government.eweek.com for the latest news and analysis of technologys impact on government practices and regulations, as well as coverage of the government IT sector.