Thoughts on the Sifry Postmortem of the Rasiej Campaign

<p>[l:|Micah Sifry recently published a very honest postmortem of the failed Rasiej campaign for public advocate in NYC.] I read it and added my thoughts and comments in the text that follows. I quoted liberally for context, but I would encourage folks to read teh entire postmortem.</p>
<p>Andrew Rasiej ran an unconventional Internet-driven campaign for New York City’s number-two office of Public Advocate. </p>
<p><cite><b>Innovative field operation.</b> We built a small but efficient field operation that delivered hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature across the city, targeted through an innovative use of the 2001 voter file to areas with the highest voter turnout (using the Google Maps tool we were able to pinpoint high turnout locations to the level of subway stops and individual buildings). Our petitioners collected more than 22,000 signatures, easily qualifying Andrew for the ballot (7,500 valid signatures were needed to get on). And our street-level “wild postings” of Rasiej posters were widely acclaimed for their visibility and their distinctive fist-and-lightning-bolt logo (appropriated straight from the Tennessee Valley Authority and its Depression-era slogan of “electricity for all”).<cite></cite></cite></p>
<p>Google Maps are cool, and sexy, and everyone wants to have Google maps, but people have run successful petitioning and primary campaigns for years without Google maps. I can't help but thinking that the time spent wrangling data into Google maps rather than using another, more full featured mapping application like Maptitude or ARCview could have resulted in the better visualization of the important data. Also, I hope that Micah means they used the 2001 election results and voter histories, not the 2001 voter file. </p>
<p><cite>Still, we had hoped that activist Democrats might be attracted to our campaign as a continuation of the 2003-04 upsurge among grass-roots partisans who volunteered on a host of campaigns; this was not to be.</cite> </p>
<p><cite>On line advertising didn’t produce. We made two significant purchases of on line advertising—a little under $20,000 for a run of blog-ads at the beginning of the campaign, in May, and about $75,000 for a wave of banner ads targeted at New York City residents on a host of news and entertainment sites that ran from early August until the end of the campaign. The purpose of the first run was simply to buy some name recognition among Andrew’s core constituency of on line political types and wired New Yorkers, and we were pleased with its results. The second run, which was targeted to New Yorkers and appeared on a mix of news sites and cultural sites aimed at young, hip types, however, did not produce the kind of impact we needed. About 80,000 click-throughs were generated (we had hoped for three to four times as many), and very few people signed up as a result. While I’m sure our on line ads helped with Andrew’s general visibility, and certainly helped grow our list, the money spent on this second run probably would have been better spent on traditional TV ads or more field efforts.</cite></p>
<p>The campaign should have measured the efficacy of this advertising strategy and been prepared to change tack when it was clear it was not working. Woah, that second run cost nearly $1 a click through! I have to wonder what the click rate was like on the first one! And what was the conversion rate? How many of thos eclickers made a donation or took some kind of action once on the Rasiej site? There are metrics to measure this stuff, and it seems like the campaign just ignored them. I would have spent the money on field efforts, and phone efforts. Not necessarily more tradition, and definitely not TV. But $75k canb buy a lot of voter contact.</p>
<p><cite>We tried to model this idea with, a website where New Yorkers could email photos of things that need fixing in NYC, like potholes. But we were stymied in our desire to involve local activists more directly in this project, even people who are working on the issue of closing the digital divide, because of their groups’ non-profit status. </cite></p>
<p>[l:|The Fund For The City of NY] has a [l:|successful program] in place to do this kind of documentation, but the campaign tried to reinvent it, and specifically with potholes, one of the easiest problems to report through the [l:|city's existing website] and 311 information system. It is far easier to open your phone dial 311 and wait for 3 minutes and then give the location of a pot hole than to open your camera phone, take a picture of the pothole, put it in a multimedia message (which may actually cost you something) txt in the location and the email address.</p>
<p><cite>But the fabled tech community turned out to be mostly a fable when it came to actually embracing Andrew’s campaign and setting aside time to spread its message. Yes, about 100 local and national bloggers linked to the campaign. But few made an extended commitment to pitch in. To give one telling example, when I asked a core group of about 30 tech supporters to help us “kick the tires” on our site by sending in a picture of a pothole before we announced the project to the public, at most 3 or 4 responded. </cite></p>
<p>I think I may have been one of the “30 tech supporters” (I got the email) even though I never committed any support to Andrew's candidacy (I was far more enamored and excited by Norman Siegel's campaign and was helping them out.) Still, the reason I didn't really help out by testing the pot hole system (though now that I think of it I might have? Or was that the [l:|WiFi petition] that I signed) was because it was a pain in the ass! Take a picture of a pothole, email it, with its location to WeFixNYC…. I could go on the [l:|DOT website] and [l:|enter in the location] and know that it would likely be fixed in 2 weeks. How could I know that? Because I had done it before, and it worked. And it took less than 5 minutes. I could also call right from my phone to 311 and report the problem in under 5 minutes. I saw the WeFixNYC pothole mapping as a gimmick, meant to get attention, but not really solve a problem that existed.</p>
<p>–A side note on the WiFi petition: there is no easy way to navigate from the [l:|petition signup page] to see the petition signers, other than to sign the petition. Or am I missing something.</p>
<p><cite>Viral campaigns are hard to do in a low attention environment.</cite><br />
Yes! Exactly! And the campaign should have know from the get-go this would be a low attention environment and that viral campaigning would not work in a city with 8 million residents, 2.6 million registered democrats and a historical turnout of 780k (in the previous Mayoral content) that any astute observer could have predicted would fall below 600k for the mayoral and far less for the down ballot races this year. It would of course not be easy to ignite a self sustaining viral campaign. And the fact that there has never been a self sustaining local viral campaign in NYC should have been further clue to the fact that this was not going to happen in this race.</p>
<p>The “where is Betsy” stuff got to be annoying and trite, and was emblematic of how the Rasiej campaign seemingly got stuck on issues that did not really effect the every day lives of most New Yorkers. Good for a “Jay Walking” segment, or fake news on the Daily Show, but not exactly the kind of stuff that you would expect from “The Number 2 Elected Official” as the campaign was so eager to point out. This whole “Next in line” business is also a bit of straw horse. The succession issue is temporary. The Public Advocate only holds the mayoralty for 60 days and then a special election is held. If a candidate is a credible and experienced politician it might be a big deal—the Public Advocate becomes an unelected incumbent, theoretically giving them a leg up in the special election. But if your candidate is an unknown first-timer with no track record in governing, than pointing out that he is next in line to assume the mayoralty may actually hurt, and I think it could have hurt Andrew.</p>
<p>Back to the potholes: Young technology workers don't typically have cars, so potholes don't matter as much to them. Sure, they may ride bikes, but Norman was the defender of the bicyclists. Stray voltage, while scary, effects only a few dozen people or animals a year if that, and most people don't think about it. Free WiFi? Well most techies already have it, and in hipster neighborhoods WiFi is ubiquitous, there are a half dozen strong open networks from where I sit right now. If i go to Tompkins square park i can get some, some Cty parks already have free WiFi, many cafes and even some bars offer free WiFi….</p>
<p><cite>It took us a long time to implement a “tell-a-friend” feature on our website that we thought would have viral potential. </cite></p>
<p>Tell a friend should have been the first thing on the site. I installed a module on my site (up there on the left) in about 3 minutes. Around the time that the campaign launched there was a mapping viral tell a friend system available open source and off the shelf called [l:|ForwardTrack]. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the campaign could have used it and been up and running in a day. Also, tools like [|CivicSpace]/[|Drupal] could have provided significantly more robust community/campaign web features and tools right off the bat rather than the WordPress powered website the campaign used. I emailed Micah very early on to ask about the website, and the response I got was something like: this is just temporary, we are going to get something else up soon, it was just quick and easy (i am paraphrasing). I have installed and configured CivicSpace websites in under an hour. Even the first time I did it, it couldn't have taken me more than 3 hours.</p>
<p><cite>Personally, I found our interaction with both the Working Families Party and ACORN, two of the most important progressive organizations in the city, to be a big letdown. One would think that these institutions, both of which pride themselves on being organizing and strategy hubs for the city’s liberal-left, might have seen an opportunity in the little-known Public Advocate’s office. </cite></p>
<p>Anyone thinking that ACORN would take a chance on a long shot technocrat candidate was completely misguided. Probably anyone who ever worked for the organization could have told you that. ACORN is driven principally by the needs and interests of its members. And while ACORN members might be left out of the technological revolution (basically Rasiej's cause), they are far more in need of jobs and housing. As for the Working Families Party, Siegel would have appeared to be the natural choice. The free WiFi and reinventing-government-to-empower-citizen-to-complain-more-effectively campaign promises simply didn't turn people on.</p>
<p>Given the timing of the Rasiej campaign, and the serious uphill battle it was facing with institutional support, it would have been far more effective to ignore endorsement interviews and go right to the people, that was what his campaign was supposed to be about. Disintermediating the citizenry/electorate and the institutions that exist to control access to power, and directly empower New Yorkers. Who needs endorsements from political hacks to do that?! Every endorsement interview could have been a visit to 3 to 5 bars or cafes in a neighborhood filled with Rasiej;s target voter demographic.</p>
<p><cite>Message was too narrow? Or too broad? </cite><br />
To answer your question Micah, the message was too narrow. WiFi and more broadly, technology, cannot solve every problem, they cannot defend a young black man who has been beaten by the police for no reason, or kids who have been improperly pushed out of their school for behavioral issues, or protesters who are mishandled by the police. And it doesn't take the number 2 elected official in the city to push the improvement of technological infrastructure for the city. You don't even need to be in elected office for that. One of the biggest tech infrastructure improvements n recent memory was made by a planning professional who thought to use old colonial era water mains to run fiber through lower Manhattan. </p>
<p>Perhaps it would be easier to unite New Yorkers of all stripes and politicians at every level around a tech infrastructure plan WITHOUT being a candidate or an elected official? The WiFi issue allowed the campaign to be criticized exactly as you indicated. The problem for many people in Brooklyn and Queens is that they can't even get CABLE! Let alone DSL Old paper wrapped copper wires are beaten by the elements as they snake up the sides of buildings and across roofs, some people can't even hold a dial up connection reliably. Dreaming about universal low cost WiFi seems like just that, a dream!</p>
<p>A mayoral candidate could push a broad plan for rewiring the city, but that is not the role of the public advocate. Not as most people who understand the role of the public advocate see it. And in actually the position only exists because the old city council president in 1989 needed a place to land after the carter revision eliminated his position. </p>
<p>If you still wanted to run a campaign predicated on improving the technology infrastructure for the city, there were other ways to get at it than suggesting putting wireless access points on rooftops would solve problems. The city needs redundant communications as we have seen that time and time again. Microwave and laser high speed could connect all parts of th city without expensive and disruptive underground cabling projects. How about highspeed fiber optics? Businesses need it to compete.</p>
<p>Immigrants in South Eastern Queens would be able to make VOIP calls to family around the world for pennies if only they could get high speed access in their homes. It doesn't have to be wifi. Stop cable companies from redlining. Or require basic highspeed packages that are affordable. The cable companies get basically free access to rooftops to run their wires, in exchange they should have to run their wires to every house that wants it.</p>
<p>Another technology issue that the Rasiej campaign completely ignored is the issue of software procurement. The city spends millions of dollars on Microsoft and other proprietary software products every year. And likely millions more writing custom software and supporting both. Open Source software procurement could save the city millions of dollars and would be another way to engage the broader technology community to solve the city's problems creatively. Councilwoman Gail brewer's technology committee has had some hearings on the issue but it has gone no where from what i understand.</p>
<p><Cite>Does “open-source politics” have a future?<br />
One last set of observations: My biggest personal disappointment was discovering how little our attempts to be an open, transparent and bottom-up campaign mattered in a context where few people were paying attention. This is perhaps the most important lesson for anyone considering an “open-source” style political endeavor. Such efforts should be able to gain traction in an environment where lots of people are personally motivated to care about the race or issue at stake. Obviously, a presidential campaign, or a congressional race that could shift the balance of power in Washington, are both likely to garner more free attention from self-starting political activists than, say, a down-ballot race for an urban office few people know about or understand. The same sobering fact may be true for city council races and state legislative races as well. </cite></p>
<p>I have to disagree with the notion that only presidential and congressional races can benefit from “open source politics” I also think that Micah is conflating a few things here: openness and transparency in political campaigning is one. Grassroots campaigning is another. Web enabled campaigning is a third, and open source civic engagement tools is an extension of that. He is right, in that if people don't understand or care about an elective office, this stuff isn't going to make them care. I think that these characteristics of campaigning can work best for the most local of elective offices. Council candidates can bring their 100 volunteers into the campaign and empower them through openness and technology (if they are mildly tech savvy). State legislative races can make use of e-canvass tools to cover their districts without having multiple campaign offices or requiring volunteers to travel to central locations to do campaign work.</p>
<p>CivicActions and other open source development shops are working on a suite of tools for e-campaigning. It includes e-canvass tools, viral marketing tools, ECRM and online fundraising, virtual phone banking. People have less time to help out, but that doesn't mean they don't want to. As Marty Kearns often says, you have volunteers for 10 minutes, can you use them? People, even politically savvy, grassroots veterans are not interested in traveling to a campaign office every night wasting time waiting for a phone, being rewarded with pizza or candy. I want to make calls from home, maximizing the time that I have. I want to knock on my neighbors doors, without first having to travel 30 minutes to get a list of voters. I don't think that Andrew Rasiej's dismal failure at the polls changes that.</p>
<p>The Rasiej campaign cannot be considered a bellwether for the future of e-campaigning or open and transparent campaigning. As Micah points out, the campaign made mistakes at almost every turn, and faced significant external obstacles. I remember saying to a co-worker early in the summer “I hope that the Rasiej Campaign doesn't give political technology a bad name and discredit e-campaigning.” I think an unsophisticated analysis of the campaign could hurt the “industry” but if all things are considered, the campaign provides lessons for future ones, but should not discredit the tools.</p>

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