June 23, 2005

CivicSpace Labs: Better politics through open source

Author: Corinne McKay

Open source software is everywhere nowadays -- even in the cautious offices of political campaigns. During last year's U.S. presidential campaign, a staff speechwriter from the Howard Dean campaign begged for Linux on his laptop, according to Zack Rosen, a DeanSpace Web developer, technical volunteer coordinator and Web radio producer. Rosen says that the Dean campaign's general manager Joe Trippi was "the first to have authority to start talking meaningfully about the concept of 'open source politics.'" Rosen and other Dean and Wesley Clark campaign alums have staked the future of their new project, CivicSpace Labs, on the idea that open source and politics can co-exist in "bottom-up people-powered campaigns."

CivicSpace is picking up where the technical arms of the Dean and Clark campaigns left off. Mostly, this means developing a set of GPLed tools to help progressive political groups build and publish Web sites, blogs, forums, and photo galleries, create polls and surveys, organize events, create mailing lists, and more. Rosen, co-founder and director of CivicSpace, says that while his organization's software is designed with political organizing in mind, it's in use by other kinds of civic groups as well, including groups of poets, churches, and even a fox-hunting information portal.

CivicSpace's Director of Business Strategy, Andrew Hoppin, says that for political organizing, open source appeals to both the budget and the time line of grassroots organizations. Hoppin analyzes his experience as a member of the Wesley Clark campaign technical staff by saying, "We needed to provide functionality to myriad groups without spending any money to do so, for reasons both legal (campaign contribution limit) and financial (no/low budget for unproven technology-driven approaches to political campaigning). Furthermore, while we couldn't afford, especially at first, to hire all the technology development talent we needed, we had dozens of technology volunteers ready and willing to pitch in for the campaign. With open source software we didn't have to worry about numbers of installs or server or seat licenses or waiting for sign-offs from Legal on software contracts." At the same time, Hoppin adds that for some purposes, such as bulk email and online donation tracking, proprietary tools as available from an application service provider were a better option than "waiting to refine open source tools for these critical functions." CivicSpace is now doing just that, so that next time around campaigns will have more options available.

Today, CivicSpace counts five full-time paid staff, a rotating corps of short-term contractors, several interns, and back-office support provided by its incubating organization. Tasks undertaken at CivicSpace's San Francisco office include interacting with the user community of more than 200 sites, marketing CivicSpace's mission with the goal of becoming self-supporting, and of course working on the software that makes it all come together.

Technically, CivicSpace is built on top of the Drupal open source content management platform. Why Drupal? Rosen says, "Drupal is the obvious choice for us. The development environment is very lightweight. The developed features and the focus of the community are almost exactly in line with our vision. And the pace of development is staggering -- the number of Drupal.org submissions has been growing at a literally exponential rate. We are keeping an eye on the nascent Ruby-on-rails community though, and have a lot of respect for those with enough fortitude to try building things on top of Zope and Plone."

CivicSpace's philosophy might be summed up as "open source inside, open source outside," as Rosen and Hoppin say that one of their organization's core ideals is to "enable citizens to collaboratively conduct what are essentially open source marketing campaigns for causes they believe in." For CivicSpace's staff, the extension of this philosophy is "actively helping organizations that might be thought of as our competitors by a more traditional closed organization," and even being willing to "hop on the bandwagon and help" if another organization improves on what CivicSpace does.

At present, CivicSpace releases a new version of its software about once every other month, and more than a dozen vendors and consultants offer services to support or customize CivicSpace's products. While the current version of the software requires a user to be somewhat skilled in installing applications on a LAMP server, the standard package also includes an installation and configuration wizard to smooth the process, and one of CivicSpace's goals for version 1.0 is better "productization" and extension, so that the standard version of the software is easier to install and use. Hoppin notes that for groups with little to no technical skill, ISPs such as Electric Embers and Point0.net are already familiar with CivicSpace's software, and a full ASP service based on the software will be available later this year.

When asked how politicians view the role of open source in politics, Rosen says, "Politicians aren't there yet, but political operatives and campaign workers are starting to get it." Hoppin adds, "If open source politics is as powerful as we think it is in the CivicSpace community, then the breakthroughs we saw in this past campaign cycle are just the tip of the iceberg. Most politicians probably won't pay much attention until it sinks a few of their ships, but I have no doubt that we'll see a number of these shipwrecks by 2006."

Looking at CivicSpace's "About" pages, it's hard to miss the fact (especially before they took their photos off the pages) that these guys are, well, young. The organization's co-founders, Rosen and his college friend Neil Drumm, dropped out of the University of Illinois to work on Hack4Dean. When that wrapped up, Rosen "pitched Silicon Valley VC Andy Rappaport on CivicSpace over a hamburger, and 20 minutes later he agreed to support the organization."

Currently supported by philanthropic money from venture capitalists, CivicSpace is gearing up for the next election cycle by making progress toward becoming a non-profit with a self-sustaining revenue stream. In addition, they hope to become as easy to use as their proprietary ASP competitors, such as Kintera, GetActive, and Convio.

CivicSpace is breaking open source political ground that more "mature" organizations have been reluctant to try. While CivicSpace's core staff of 20- and 30-somethings is bolstered by advisers and volunteers in their 40s and 50s, Hoppin highlights the assets of a young and energetic base of developers, saying, "It's helpful sometimes to have less context on how things used to be done so that our thinking is constrained more by the limits of our imagination than by history, tradition, or conventional wisdom."


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