By Tate Hausman, Co-Director, dotOrganize
Imagine yourself as one of 100 guests at a wedding reception. You've just finished dinner, and the best man stands up to make an unusual toast.
"I'm planning my own wedding in a few months," he says. "I may choose this same restaurant for our reception, so I'd like your opinion about the food. By a show of hands, who thought tonight's meal was really outstanding?"
One person raises his hand.
"Who thought it was okay, but needed a little something extra?"
"Who nibbled here and there, but was frustrated with the poor quality?"
"Who found it totally unappetizing, and struggled to force it down?"
"And did anyone think it was such a disaster they couldn't eat?"
So, six out of ten guests thought the meal was somewhere between frustrating and disastrous, and only one guest was really satisfied. If you were the best man, wouldn't you start looking for a new restaurant, pronto?
Unfortunately, these satisfaction stats aren't from a fictitious wedding. They're from a technology survey of over 400 progressive organizers conducted in mid-2006. Six out of ten respondents said they were somewhere between "frustrated" and "disaster" with their technology. Only 1% said, "We're completely set."
Put another way, the Internet revolution's promise to progressive organizers (more constituents, more dollars, more effective campaigns) hasn't been fulfilled.
So What's the Problem?
According to the dotOrganize survey, the #1 universal complaint about progressive technology is that our tools don't interoperate. Individual tools work, but they don't work together. We have good tools, but not good toolsuites.
For example, I recently served as Tech Director at the John Hall for Congress campaign (NY-19). No single tool could do everything we needed, so we had to use seven different online tools -- NGP, VAN, PopVox, MyActivate, ActBlue, Drupal and Google Calendar. None of them automatically shared data. My staff and I spent hundreds of hours pushing data around, matching lists, de-duping, etc -- valuable time that should have been spent communicating with voters. And we still couldn't perform certain critical functions.
Sound familiar? If you work in a progressive campaign or organization, I bet it does.
Forces Aligning for a Real Solution
To solve this "dis-integration" problem, progressives need to rethink our approach to online tools. Instead of trying to build one tool that does it all (a path that has been tried many times before) we should build tools that share data, easily, in real time. If our tools interoperated, users could pick and choose their exact configuration of tools, and build themselves the toolsuite they need. As new tools become available, they could be "snapped on" to the toolsuite, instead of requiring users to abandon their old systems (always a difficult and costly process).
An era of integration is becoming more possible every day, due to three key trends:
- Web technology itself has matured. Concepts like open APIs, Web services, open standards and XML have made data sharing easier than ever.
- Progressive organizers are demanding change. They understand that integration is crucial to their success, and are asking for it vocally.
- Our vendors are ready for change. They realize the current model isn't quite working. Smart vendors see that companies like Salesforce.com have made very profitable business models out of integration.
How, technically, would integrated tools work? There are many possible paths, and I don't pretend to know the best solution yet. Would a data synching platform work? OpenIDs? Data standards? Teams of fully-funded programmers who only do integrations? Leading tech thinkers are chewing this problem over as we speak.
We do know that integration is a community-wide problem, so it will require a community-wide solution. And it will not happen on its own, without leadership and resources from progressive funders. There's not enough payback for any single organization or vendor to solve the integration problem without outside help. As ActBlue's Ben Rahn wrote recently, "There's a market failure here: clients with tight budgets and specific short-term needs (e.g. campaigns) aren't in a position to fund long-term public goods."
Step 1: Sign the Integration Proclamation
So where do we start? First, let's get the funders, vendors and users all on the same page, with the Integration Proclamation. This is an open petition born out of the RootsCamp DC conference in mid-December. About 20 progressive vendors, organizers and techies all pledged to make integration a top infrastructure priority of 2007. Hundreds more have already signed on. If you agree that integrated toolsuites are the future of progressive technology, you are warmly welcome to sign the Proclamation.
Along with attracting funder attention, we hope the Integration Proclamation sparks smart discussions among users and vendors. I urge you to take this conversation into your organizations and networks. Chew over the idea of integrated toolsuites. Mention it to your co-workers. Send the Integration Proclamation to your colleagues and allies, and see what they think.
And most importantly -- if you're an organizer, don't stop dreaming of the integrated toolsuites you need. Your necessity is the mother of our inventions!