NGP VAN Opens Door for a Democratic Community of Innovation


New guest author Dave Leichtman (Strategic Advisor for Democratic Campaigns in Microsoft’s Campaign Tech group and Vice-chair for Tech of the Democratic Party of Virginia) explains why last night’s NGP VAN technology rollout is a Big Deal for Democratic politics and activism. Their new/upgraded tools are a part of the Democratic Party’s Project Ivy, which aims to get vital technologies into the hands of campaigners across the country.

Dave’s analysis is spot-on, and you can also check out coverage in the WSJ (“Democrats Take Lesson From Apple’s Playbook”), NGP VAN’s press release and highlights from the announcement.

Last night, NGP VAN moved Democratic political technology into a new phase — one of solidarity and maturity. Long criticized for having somewhat of a monopoly in the space, potentially hampering innovation, NGP VAN’s Next event instead rather proved that there’s still plenty of new ground to be broken. In a space where showcase events like this have often heralded the mundane (or worse yet, vaporware), NGP VAN announced some exciting new products and projects.

Let’s dive into the deeper implications of some of what they announced:

Upgraded Product Suite

The most tangible of their announcements were the least interesting (to me, anyway). A new version of VAN, and a new version of NGP, both products made to look and feel more like each other — definitely a positive step since it’s been 3 years since the companies merged. However, because of the extensive field training people have on both products, NGP VAN is constrained as to how much they can modify the actual user experience and workflow. Expect that to change, but slowly and deliberately.

Innovation Platform

The truly innovative stuff came in the form of the appropriately-named Innovation Platform. They’ve put a lot of work into overhauling their infrastructure, and Relay and Pipeline are the result. Relay efficiently matches data across NGP VAN’s various products, while Pipeline creates a realtime data sync to several of the most-used analytics services — namely Blue Labs, Civis, Clarity, and Catalist. These changes might seem small, but they’re technically challenging, and they’re critically important to the data and analytics folks on campaigns. It was also nice to see NGP VAN unifying logins under ActionID and taking the next step on portability with embeddable forms (what they’re calling ActionTag).

APIs: Opportunities for Grassroots Creativity

But to me, that was all either must-haves or behind-the-scenes work. What got me excited was the announcement of NGP VAN’s partnership with the DNC to make all of this open via a set of APIs (available at http://developers.democrats.org). In conjunction with the ProgressUI library — a set of interface patterns, reusable code snippets, styles, and art — these APIs have the potential to turn every field office into the country into an app-building shop. Got a great idea for how to use your field data? Now you can build the app! If you’ve ever worked in a campaign office, you know how many great ideas pop up and then disappear with a dismissive “it would be great if VAN did that.” Well, now you and your developers can build the app yourselves.

I can’t over-emphasize how important this API is for the Democratic political space. In a world where apps can be built overnight, the greatest thing a company like NGP VAN can do is offer a platform, a hub for innovation. They and the DNC have put the tools in your hands. And now we can’t simply blame NGP VAN for not having all of the greatest ideas because they’ve enabled you and thousands of campaign staff around the country to act on their own innovations. And that’s truly significant. Time will tell just how much of an ecosystem will evolve around this platform, but I have high hopes for it.

Unifying Voter Identity

One other important theme that carried through everything that was announced last night: a unified view of voters, volunteers, and donors. I personally probably exist in several hundred client databases within NGP VAN’s vast data store. But I’m the same person every time, and my vital info and contact history are the same, regardless of which campaign collected them. Recognizing that fact is a crucial step toward “what’s next” in how Democrats conduct their ground game. NGP VAN’s Relay matching backed by its PersonDB central database will be a great step forward, especially for the analytics crowd.

actionCenter: Seeds of a Hub for Online Democratic Activity?

Lastly, I want to pick up on what many seasoned organizers dismiss as a wingding, and that’s NGP VAN’s actionCenter (“an online office where supporters can leverage their existing relationships to take meaningful action on behalf of the causes they support”). While not new — several campaigns have used various forms of it even last year — when you consider the new shift toward a unified view of a person, actionCenter gets a lot more exciting. Super-volunteers have often longed for a central activity hub for finding and organizing campaign activities. While it’s all still very scattered, there’s a seed there of something bigger, something like a centralized hub for online democratic activity.

A Good Night for Democrats

To wrap up, let me say that last night was a good night to be a Democratic campaigner. NGP VAN and the DNC have made a huge leap forward with campaign technology. And once these products and projects all become available this fall, it’s sure to push the entire movement forward dramatically.

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