December 23, 2004

A decisive victory for open source in the political arena

Author: Mark Hennessey

In political campaigns, flexibility,
speed, and cost really are killer apps. Candidates are more
interested in results than process. Strangely enough, open source solutions really fit well into
this kind of environment.

Bethlehem, N.Y., is a town with a
population of 31,000 people. Every two years, the town elects a town
supervisor. I became one of the campaign managers for the town
supervisor campaign, and we put together a strategy that would try to
get our message out with the lowest cost and highest flexibility.
That's where open source came in.

At the time (summer 2003), the idea of
using open source in a campaign still seemed
a little outlandish to most people. In this case, the idea of cost
savings cut through the misgivings. At one campaign meeting where we
were discussing print materials, I said something like:
"What if we could save thousands of dollars by using open source
instead of store-bought stuff?" I remember somebody rolling their eyes.
He works as a technology manager with a Fortune 500 company, a really
Windows-focused shop, so he was less than ready to believe that Linux,
free software, or open source was ready for prime time.

I told them that we could do
thousands of dollars in print work without spending a dime on the
software and that we could do it all in-house. The local newspaper, The Spotlight, required that
all print ads be produced in Adobe Acrobat format. A former employer of mine had
purchased the Adobe suite a few years back, so I knew the product was
expensive. I also knew that purchasing it was out of the question.

Luckily for us, OpenOffice
1.1 (OOo) and later versions have all had the capability to generate Adobe
Acrobat files. Using OOo allowed us to quickly typeset and do
mockups of campaign print ads and then e-mail them out to our
candidates in PDF format. This is a pretty attractive concept,
because most computers have Adobe Acrobat Reader or Xpdf already installed.. OpenOffice was also really great for putting
together Web pages.

I described the idea to our candidate, and she kind of smirked, saying at the time, "Let's see what we can do." It seemed like
tepid support; I was not sure if she was really confident it would
work. Nevertheless, I went ahead with the plan. We would do
muck-ups, the candidate would e-mail me, call or fax in her changes and
I would make the edits from my home office. This
approach maximized the flexibility of our print ads and helped us cut
down on lead time -- helpful in a campaign. Having this tool gave us an
advantage; we could wait to the last minute to finalize our print ads.
On one occasion we had 100 supporters get together for a group
photo. We turned around an ad with the photo in less than a day -- a great
turnaround. People were amazed.

We also had a Web site to run, e-mail
operations, and direct mail as well. For our Web site, we used Apache. At the time, it
was the best choice for us because: a) it was free, and b) it was
mature and very stable. As a matter of fact, in the whole time we ran
the campaign, we only had one down day -- and that was due to a problem with
our service provider, not Apache.

I used Ximian Evolution for mass e-mails. Now owned by Novell, it is simply one of the most
elegant and well-put together Linux products on the market. With its
integrated newsreader, mailing lists, appointment book, and other
features, it automated at least three functions for which we would have needed
additional staff. That allowed for more people making phone
calls and in the field -- again, crucial to the success of a campaign.

When it came time to work with
photographs, we used GIMP 1.0. I
brought this up at one campaign meeting and someone said no, you use
Photoshop for that. I said we could again, rely on open source to get
the job done -- and it did. I was able to crop, resize, and reformat
images as needed, and that was a real help. Not having to buy
Photoshop was an even bigger help.

The only downside to using GIMP was that it did not save files into
GIFs. This really was not mission-critical,
and I became a big fan of PNG instead. However, PNG became a problem
when printing handbills and brochures. We simply could not find a
printer who would work from PNG files. They all wanted either JPEG or
TIFF. It seemed that GIMP had a problem with TIFF as well, so we stuck
with JPEG.

For managing direct mail lists, I used MySQL. After integrating this with OOo, I was able to put together list of
supporters. I have to admit using the Command Line with MySQL
was a little daunting at first, but having some background on
relational databases helped me over the hump. I would
not recommend trying this to the newbie, and I considered that one of
the shortcomings of MySQL versus, say, MS-Access, or a commercial product.

All of these were either included or
part of an update I got by choosing Red
Linux 8. I have to admit at the time I liked RH 8. The
Bluecurve desktop was beautiful to look at and there was a real sense
of community involvement when it came to support issues. Whenever I hit
a dependency problem, or could not figure something out, I Googled for
an answer, and it turned out usually more experienced users had
already posted answers. I did occasionally run into problems where
there were no answers, so I later
went on to use the Debian-based Xandros. With Xandros, I found a more seamless level support ; but this time, at
a cost.

Most of the time that we used this
software, people were unaware that we were using open source. It's not
that I hid it from them, but having experience working with people in
this industry, they don't really what to know the intricacies of coding
and compiling -- just as most of people in the information technology
industry don't want to know the ins-and-outs of local government. In
the end, both worlds just want to know that it works, and for this
campaign, open source did the job: on time, on track and below budget.

We won by a landslide victory. Now I cannot say that having a strong, committed candidate was anything less
than essential to the victory, but I know that managing a campaign of
its size and producing materials for it with no-cost open source
software contributed a lot. I believe open source desktop publishing is
ready for prime time because of great products like OOo, GIMP and Evolution.

On a final note: The same Fortune 500 manager now still rolls his eyes
about my open source advocacy, but at least I have a good test case of
how it can work. I will be using it as much as possible in the future.

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