Why the Progressive Movement Needs Open Data

Open Data is only one part of the way forward…

In the wake of the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign, a number of progressive organizations have sprung up hoping to capitalize on the people energy his Political Revolution has spurned. One of the more interesting groups is our very own Progressive Coders Network, which is working tirelessly to put tech volunteers into roles with projects intended to empower the progressive movement from the ground up. Part of ProgCode’s efforts include shaping the meta of future open-source development in the political marketplace, and a big part of that agenda is promoting adoption of open-data platforms across a wide spectrum of services.

Data is open if it can be freely accessed, used, modified and shared by anyone for any purpose — subject only, at most, to requirements to provide attribution and/or share-alike. Specifically, open data is defined by the Open Definition and requires that the data be A. Legally open: that is, available under an open (data) license that permits anyone freely to access, reuse and redistribute B. Technically open: that is, that the data be available for no more than the cost of reproduction and in machine-readable and bulk form. 
-”The Open Data Handbook”, Open Knowledge International

As of October 17th, Progressive Coders Network has officially joined forces with OSDI, the Open Supporter Data Interface, to begin the process of establishing an open source data platform to empower grassroots organizations and campaigns. OSDI seeks to create a common API (Application Program Interface) for a variety of data relevant to the progressive cause, an ambitious plan that could allow smaller, grassroots campaigns access to the same kind of detailed voter information the large campaigns can purchase with their near limitless campaign donations. This is the first step into creating a “data-spine” to support a body of tools and services geared towards the Progressive political network, however its usefulness can be translated across a number of influences.

Part of Open Data isn’t just access to information about people, although that may arguably be the most important aspect of it. The political system as it stands relies heavily on the purchasing-power of campaigns to afford access to private data information (buying user data from large purveyors) and building a “voter file” of that information: a collection of voters and as much info on them as is possible, from purchasing history to work and family ties. Both the DNC and the RNC leverage these voter files to craft their messages: the demographics research is tied directly into ad-buys for Congressional, Senate and Presidential TV and radio spots, driving the writing and talking points behind everything from YouTube ads to Super Bowl commercials. Without all that valuable data, the candidates would have to spend millions on focus groups and polling to get accurate pictures of what the electorate will actually engage with.

These data files also represent a major obstacle for insurgent political campaigns, and highlight the inherent problems in the current Two-Party-Dominated election system in the United States: without the buying power of the major parties, small campaigns have a hard time getting the voter information they need to properly craft their message. How can you engage with the African American community in your city if you don’t know how many there are, how many of them vote, and what they care about? Voter Files allow the big campaigns access to this type of information with minimal effort, meaning the majority of their time can be spent on outreach instead of research, a major advantage when time is critical (as it always is during an election).

These same advantages are seen in the private sector: PR firms, marketing agencies and their ilk spend and take in billions of dollars a year gathering, analyzing and selling data to the highest bidders. Data drives the advertsing campaigns you see on TV, on billboards, hear on the radio; a group of executives somewhere looked at numbers and knew just when to put the premier of The Walking Dead in order to attract the most potential viewers BECAUSE of data gathered and sold to them. Having access to people’s habits and history allows you to shape products and messages directly to them, resulting in greater sales and adoption of trends

Enter the concept of “Open Data”: most of the data these 3rd party purveyors are getting is already freely available if someone had the time and energy to go around doing the research themselves. Very little of it is obtained through magical means: most of it is sold willingly by websites, hosts, vendors…anytime you’ve filled a form on the internet that wasn’t explicitly protected from data selling has likely entered a database somewhere, being picked at and prodded by people who have spent way too much time alone with numbers in the dark. This data is the lifeblood of modern marketing, as it can contain things like your purchase history online, how many times you’ve voted, if you’ve responded to surveys…all vital information in establishing a “demographics profile” of you so marketers can tailor messages specifically for you and people like you.

Making this data freely available to grassroots campaigns is akin to a mom-and-pop store getting a free multi-million dollar marketing package: it levels the playing field in terms of message outreach and engagement, a playing field formerly dominated by immense fundraising efforts and deep-pocketed donor backing. Open Data would allow unprecedented access for groups that are otherwise shut out of the larger conversations: the populist message that is popular in big cities could more effectively reach small towns and rural areas. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign was the bellwether of this idea: thanks to vast volunteer outreach and the effective leveraging of online communities, the Sanders campaign had more likely-voter data on hand for free than many previous campaigns had ever thought possible (likely because previous campaigns didn’t have the advantage of Reddit). Bernie’s volunteer online organizations provided key metrics on post engagement in social media, allowing Bernie’s team to target and mobilize the Millenial demographic in a way no marketing team had done before.

The benefits of open data go beyond politics: scientific progress benefits from the sharing of information, and open-data — open-source applications in general, for that matter — can facilitate the enrichment of ideas in current R&R by mitigating duplicate efforts. Projects like Slack, for example, have been adopted by the likes of NASA, while also helping inter-team communication in software and tech startups around the world. The seemingly novel idea of a FREE communication platform that acted as an information hub for online communities fed into all the facets of the technological revolution we are currently experiencing: social sharing, constant engagement, constant connection…all made possible because of open-source software!

Open Data gives us things like Wikipedia, like the complete works of William Shakespeare available on your Kindle. Open Data is a concept that says the great masterpieces of Chopin and Mozart are culturally significant enough as to warrant legal protections, to be made public for all time so as to ensure their message persists through the generations. It is the same spirit of openness and cooperation that drives the Open Data movement in Tech: providing a framework for the future that guarantees maximum flexibility and potential, providing resources that are meant to encourage and enrich the individual experience. As history has shown us, communities thrive when they work together and share information.