How a Frankenstein’s monster of code won Nevada in 2016, and how it can help win Virginia in three weeks

This week, Ragtag has launched a brand spanking new version of Nomad — the carpool-to-canvass tool used in 2016 by the very successful San Francisco to Reno border state program for Hillary for America. An all-volunteer built, grassroots tool to support in-person outreach and traditional organizing tactics? That’s right. It can happen.

Need a ride?

The History

California was Hillary all the way, and full of people wanting to volunteer and help sway the election.

Unfortunately, canvassing in our own neighborhoods wasn’t likely to have much of an impact in the presidential election (see: California was Hillary all the way)

As a result, the local Hillary for America team in California started a program to get volunteers traveling to our nearest battleground neighbor: Nevada. For the San Francisco office, this meant Reno.

At first we had buses heading from the SF campaign field office to Reno. The logistics were challenging — it was a pain to make sure the buses were full, without overfilling them. That problem went away when the Brooklyn Campaign HQ had to re-allocate some resources, and decided they weren’t going to pay for the buses anymore. So, being scrappy field organizers, we decided the San Francisco volunteers could just drive themselves and their fellow volunteers there, and drive themselves around Reno to knock on doors when they got there!

For many volunteers outside the city of San Francisco, it didn’t really make sense to drive into the city, away from Nevada, to meet up at the downtown San Francisco field office rendezvous point. Carpools were leaving from scattered locations in and around the city, since volunteer teams all around Northern California wanted to join the Reno canvasses. It was difficult and labor-intensive to connect local volunteers without transportation to drivers with empty seats, or to find willing drivers for groups without transportation. Tracking which volunteers were traveling with which carpools on which date became a headache in its own right.

The resolution of our bus logistics problem had spawned a thousand tiny bus-logistics problems. Something had to give.

The Solution

Democratic Presidential campaigns have used the incredible resource of blue-state volunteers to help in swing states for years. The problem we were facing was not new, and it had been solved before.

The Obama for America 2012 campaign had a groundbreaking tech operation, including a first-of-its-kind tech field office in San Francisco. One of their most important volunteer-built tools was Trip Planner, aka Nomad — a carpool and supporter housing app integrated into the Obama Dashboard organizing tool. But as is often the case with campaign tech, the Trip Planner tool disappeared into the ether as soon as the election was over.

Our bus- and carpool-logistics problems in the summer of 2016 made it clear that the OFA volunteer team had been on the right track.

We needed a tech-enabled system to connect people to carpools, and track them.

The new incarnation of Nomad — Nomad2016 — was conceived as a virtual cork-board, where volunteers driving from safely Democratic states to neighboring swing states could offer rides to other volunteers who wouldn’t or couldn’t drive themselves. The Hillary for America campaign didn’t have a fancy Tech Field Office like the Obama campaign had. Instead it had hundreds of volunteers organized into a team called DevProgress. They worked together all summer and fall remotely over the internet on projects for the HFA campaign and Democrats across the country.

Flynn Ezra Beckman, the intrepid Fall Fellow at the HFA field office in charge of the CA2NV travel program, connected with Brady Kriss, then People and Product lead with DevProgress (and contributer to the OFA Trip Planner project). With Flynn guiding the priorities and requirements, the DevProgress team quickly built a carpool sharing app, using primarily off-the-shelf tools, like Airtable, Typeforms, and Mandrill. A couple of weeks later, another DevProgress team built custom dashboards and integrations to allow the field organizers in San Francisco and Reno to better track the flow of volunteers.

It always comes back to a database…

The team built Nomad2016 in a serious time crunch, to satisfy rapidly changing needs and requests from the organizers’ side. There was extremely limited time to test features before they were launched to users, with zero time for bells and whistles. Even with these challenges, the tool performed admirably.

The Application

Visitors to the Nomad2016 website could sign up as a driver offering rides to other volunteers, or as a passenger looking for a ride. Volunteers searched for rides using Google Maps or by filling out a request form. If a carpool meeting their criteria was added after they signed up, the potential rider got an email update.

Carpool offers on the map remained outwardly anonymous. When a ride request was made, the driver received an email from the Nomad2016 system with basic information about the volunteer requesting a ride. If the driver accepted the passenger, both would get email introducing them to each other. Waiting to divulge the driver’s name or contact information until after they’d accepted the rider made it feel easier and safer for drivers.

This complex and automatic system functioned very smoothly. Technical and user errors were handled easily by programmers supporting the tool or by organizers coordinating the travel program. Keeping track of every volunteer’s status and progress went from time-consuming manual work to requiring organizers’ attention only a few times a day. With their time freed up by Nomad 2016, volunteers did more recruitment, worked more with volunteers directly, and increased the number of volunteers they could manage.

All of the volunteer information and details of carpools was stored in a database that the field organizers could access. Volunteers who needed to change the details of their carpool, cancel, or get help with the automated system could call a hotline staffed by the travel program organizers. The app even provided a tracking system that allowed organizers to monitor updates.

According to Flynn, “This tool saved my sanity and made me a better organizer.”

While organizers still did some coordination matching up drivers and riders, especially at the last minute in Get Out The Vote (GOTV), Nomad2016 allowed volunteers to do a lot for themselves. This volunteer-directed organization freed the travel program team to focus on canvass volunteer recruitment and better coordination with the GOTV campaign team in Nevada.


The Result

Source of volunteers canvassing in Reno from California, 10/29–11/8

922 individual volunteers…

Covered over twice as much territory as the Nevada campaign expected…

Spent 2,042 cumulative days in the field…

Completed an estimated cumulative 3,523 canvassing shifts…

Each volunteer spent an average of 2.2 days canvassing…

Worked an average of 3.8 shifts…

Knocked on a cumulative 61,260 doors…

Spoke to 13,885 people…

Turned out 10,414 voters!

Hillary won Nevada by 26,432 votes. Catherine Cortez Masto won Nevada by 26,231 votes.


The Future

The new and improved Nomad at nomad.ragtag.org

Nomad2016 was a labor of love held together by blood, sweat, tears, and hope. When former DevProgress volunteers and other tech activists founded Ragtag after the November 2016 election, they knew they wanted to offer campaigns a repeat of what Nomad2016 achieved. Ragtag took the proven concept and rebuilt it from the ground up, with proper engineering and robust code. It’s being deployed in elections this year, and it’s ready for the 2018 elections, so that volunteers stuck in gerrymandered or otherwise uncompetitive districts can travel to participate directly in the community organizing and team-building that will win elections for progressives up and down the ballot.

Nomad went live today for its first test in the Virginia gubernatorial and House of Delegates races. Offer a ride or find one to GOTV for a Democratic state government in one of the most crucial swing states! If your campaign is interested in using Nomad for the 2017 or 2018 elections, please contact Ragtag. If you want to contribute to the project, you can support Ragtag or join the team.