Sunday, November 11, 2012

Technology field offices: a new precedent?

"It's an experiment", Catherine Bracy, one of the staff members assigned to manage Obama's first ever technology field office in San Francisco, said to me in early March 2012. Instead of searching for volunteers to make phone calls to battleground states, she was recruiting for engineers. The directive from Chicago was to staff this field office with volunteers who wanted to code for the campaign.

I signed the 10-page document that stated that any services rendered on the campaign's behalf belonged to Obama for America, all work did not entitle us to employee benefits, and anything confidential could not be disclosed.  Essentially, it boiled down to everything you did would be unpaid and wouldn't belong to you. Nonetheless, it also enabled people like myself to get a glimpse into the inner-workings of the Obama campaign and contribute towards the reelection of the President. The expectations were that we'd commit to 5-10 hours a week, which allowed us to still have a full-time job.

"Fastest...turnaround...ever," Angus Durocher joked when I sent back the agreement within 10 minutes of receiving it. Angus had been one of the lead engineers at YouTube before its acquisition by Google in 2006 and left the startup world to work on the Obama campaign, first as the Deputy New Media Director in New Mexico for 2008 and now was tasked as the "one lonely engineer" to staff the Obama Technology Field Office for 2012. He'd be at the field office until the last person left, tuning into the latest Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants baseball games while fueled by donuts and apple crisps brought earlier in the week.

I worked on a variety of projects, refining the voting engine that powered the "Runway to Win" contest where the top three submission submitted by amateur designers were sold as T-shirts on the Barack Obama store or building a Romney translation tool that revealed the candidate's more right-leaning positions. Other volunteers were asked to work on projects that illustrated the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or Affordable Health Care Act, along with a multitude of other applications. Catherine Bracy and Angus Durocher quarterbacked the product development and testing in San Francisco before handing off the projects to Chicago.

Perhaps one of our most significant contributions from the San Francisco technology office was the introduction of Trip Planner. Designed and built by volunteer Marc Love, Johnvey Hwang, and many other volunteers, it was a travel site that enabled supporters to find and offer housing and rides in battleground states. The thousands of emails asking for volunteers to Nevada from California enabled individuals the option to arrange carpools with this site, a tool that could undoubtedly be improved and enhanced for future presidential campaign cycles.

In 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign established more than 700 field offices across the country to build a formidable get-out-the-vote operation.  In San Francisco, one was opened primarily focused on technology development efforts, which represented one of the first times members of the tech community were enlisted to create software for the campaign. In the spirit of the campaign's mantra, the response became "Yes We Code!"

Roger Hu is a former Obama delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and a volunteer from the San Francisco Technology Field Office for the Obama 2012 campaign.

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