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Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign Is Making Its Software Open Source

Before it ended earlier this month, Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign developed a reputation for two things: detailed plans to solve concrete problems and a robust ground game. Those attributes came together on the campaign’s tech team, which built a grassroots organizing machine on the backend. That wasn’t enough to win Warren the nomination, but veterans from the team are trying to make sure their work wasn’t all for naught. They’re making seven in-house software projects available to everyone for free on GitHub, the most popular destination for open-source software on the web, in the hope that other Democratic campaigns can build on what they developed during the campaign.

“We believe we’ll be the biggest open-sourcing of political tech that has happened,” said Mike Conlow, who was the campaign’s chief technology strategist. Few political campaigns are big and well-funded enough to develop their own software. Fewer still make that software open source.

The tools themselves are not exactly revolutionary; they’re more in the vein of filling in gaps in commercially available political tech. In its early days, the campaign relied on off-the-shelf software. But as the tech team grew to nearly 20 people, it was able to take on software projects of its own. “We were focused on choosing projects where we didn’t think there was an adequate vendor tool out there on the market,” Conlow added. Campaign organizers noticed, for example, that the onboarding process for new volunteers could use more of a personal touch than the system they were using provided. When a new volunteer signed up, they would only receive an automated message. So the team built a tool, which they called Switchboard, that made it easy for organizers to personally reach out to volunteers as soon as they signed up.

Other projects, detailed in a Medium post published Friday, include an automated system for sending location-specific event emails to volunteers; a backend tool for synthesizing different streams of voter data; and, to pick a niche infamously ripe for disruption, a caucus app. The team also made its own improvements to Spoke, an existing open-source, peer-to-peer texting app, which could send texts for 1/32nd of what would have cost with a commercial vendor—saving the campaign more than $500,000 over the course of a few weeks.

But software, especially in politics, is not like the field of dreams: Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. To survive, open-source software needs someone to develop and maintain it. The big question for the Warren team’s experiment is whether any other organization will pick up and run with any of the tools they’re putting out.

“It’s really good that people are releasing stuff open source, and that they’re working on these tools and circulating them,” said Zack Exley, a longtime political tech consultant who worked on the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. “Open-source tools in the campaign world survive best, and thrive, when there’s some full-time staff working on them funded by organizations or foundations. But unfortunately, that’s almost never happened.”

Spoke, the texting tool that the campaign modified, is a prominent exception. Developed by Saikat Chakrabarti, who worked as a software engineer at Stripe before getting into politics, along with then-colleague Sheena Pakanati, the software has stuck around because MoveOn, the progressive advocacy group, has dedicated resources to maintaining it.

“The thing that happens to most software is, it just dies,” said Chakrabarti. “Someone has to be actively maintaining it and pushing it and updating it and promoting it—essentially running it like it’s a software company with actual users. Any open-source software out there, they all have an active person maintaining it.”

The Warren team is aware of these potential hurdles. “The truth is that it takes an awfully big campaign to have a technology team,” said Nikki Sutton, the campaign's chief technology officer. The projects that the campaign is releasing aren’t like apps that anyone can download and use. They require engineers who know how to run the software. “You don’t get there until you are at least statewide, and even then, you’d find not many [campaigns] have actual software engineers,” she noted.

Instead, Sutton and her former colleagues hope that outside vendors or nonprofits will find elements of their projects worth developing or emulating. Those groups, they suggested, could resell the software to smaller campaigns at very low prices. “There’s a robust community of political technology people who will be very excited by this,” Conlow said.

Part of the challenge is just getting the word out. “The biggest problem with software dumps of this sort is that they’re just kind of lost in the ether,” said Michael Luciani, the CEO of the Tuesday Company, a relational organizing technology vendor. Normally, he explained, other campaigns don’t even know open-source tools exist. The fact that the Warren team is putting effort into publicizing their projects (with, ahem, the help of interested journalists on the political tech beat) could help them avoid that fate. But ultimately it will come down to whether someone decides any of the software is worth devoting resources to.

That move could be more significant for the precedent it sets. “There is this institutional reason why the DNC and RNC don’t put out open-source software,” said Chakrabarti, referring to the Democratic and Republican national committees. “Which is, they don’t want the other side to use it.” That, he added, is a mistake. Software is just a tool; what really matters is a candidate’s message. “Overall, if both sides get better tools because it’s open source, then I think that’s actually better. I think both sides will be better at getting their messages out.”

Updated 4-2-2020, 6:41 pm EDT: This story was updated to clarify that Spoke was developed by Saikat Chakrabarti and Sheena Pakanati, not just Chakrabarti.

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