- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

As technology plays a greater role in presidential campaigns, programmers working for a handful of candidates are building many of the tools themselves.

Some of the hottest Internet innovations are happening on the virtual campaign trail.

“Everybody’s constantly revisiting and rewriting their site,” said Steven Schneider, co-founder of the research site PoliticalWeb.info. “Most of the candidates are recognizing and believing at least that the Internet is an important factor in campaigns.”

Michael Haggerty, a Web applications developer for a government contractor, spends his evenings programming for Wesley Clark. Neil Drumm, between classes at the University of Illinois, hits the keyboard for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Mr. Haggerty and Mr. Drumm are among scores of volunteers and staffers who have moved essential campaign work well beyond stuffing envelopes and leafleting, their programming achievements empowering grass-roots organizing.

Not that all this coding will necessarily win elections — Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has been using commercially available software — but Mr. Schneider said good technology can help transform candidates who might otherwise have remained an asterisk.

Among the noteworthy homegrown software: an events planner, information swappers and virtual phone banks.

Many of the Dean and Clark programmers embrace open-source software, adapting free products developed in non-campaign settings and sharing their improvements. For them, commercial software is often too expensive or inflexible.

“To the extent you build it yourself, it meets your specific needs,” said Aldon Hynes, 44, a former info-tech executive who built a voter identification tool for Mr. Dean’s Connecticut volunteers.

His software, developed under the banner of DeanSpace, is similar to eBlock built by Mr. Clark’s TechCorps.

The programs let volunteers who want to canvass potential supporters by phone obtain lists of registered voters online — something that previously involved calling a campaign office or leaving home for an organized phone bank. Through eBlock, supporters also can get lists for writing letters.

For the New Hampshire primary, Clark supporters used eBlock to contact undecided and likely Clark voters a second time to remind them to vote.

At the Dean camp, there is StormCenter, built by 26-year-old museum webmaster Aaron Welch. For Iowa’s Jan. 19 caucuses, it helped coordinate travel and dispatch thousands of volunteers, many from out of state. A version was customized for yesterday’s contests in Arizona and New Mexico.

Mr. Drumm, 20, reworked an open-source application called Drupal to help distribute campaign information using an emerging technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS.

When the campaign has new announcements, policy papers and fund-raising challenges, text and graphics automatically update on more than 100 independently maintained Dean sites. Individuals, too, can arrange to receive such feeds on their computers.

Another important tool is EventFinder 2.0, which the 30-year-old Mr. Haggerty built to organize Clark events.

Supporters enter where they live and get listings of campaign and unofficial events nearby. They can add events and R.S.V.P. using a feature akin to Evite, a commercial, Web-based events planner.

Mr. Haggerty is working on features that will regularly e-mail supporters about new events and let Clark supporters with Web sites carry customized events feeds, also using RSS.

“TechCorps allows us to experiment and try things that could potentially be tremendously valuable,” said Andrew Hoppin, 32, a Clark project manager.

Josh Lerner, 33, Mr. Clark’s director of technology, said fewer volunteers would have bothered to program had the campaign kept the code proprietary.

There’s also something to be said about free.

Dennis Kucinich’s campaign, trailing in money and votes, uses open-source products to run its online forums and photo galleries, webmaster Karen Kilroy said.

Not that the campaigns are dead set on open source.

Separate from DeanSpace, the former Vermont governor’s campaign has built “Project Commons” tools for finding events — similar to Mr. Clark’s EventFinder — and for linking supporters, but the underlying code remains proprietary.

Nor are campaigns opposed to commercial vendors.

Mr. Clark purchased the $1,500 ArcView software to produce maps that overlay voter and census data, helping the campaign better target resources.

Mr. Dean contracts with Upoc Inc. for wireless services, Wavexpress Inc. for video and Convio Inc. for fund-raising and Web development. The campaign also uses Digital Campaigns Inc. for some voter ID services at the national level, even as volunteers like Mr. Hynes develop state-tailored tools.

Michelle Kraus, chief executive of Digital Campaigns, said no candidate can match the four years and $5 million her company spent developing its software, which also tracks delegates and manages e-mail newsletters.

Mr. Kerry and John Edwards also use parts of the package.

But with open source, campaigns don’t have to rely on the whims and often differing priorities of software vendors, its advocates say.

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