How the Obama Campaign Makes "Two Minute Volunteers"

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The Obama presidential campaign made waves last week when it announced Obama '08: The Official iPhone Application. This free application hit the iTunes App Store Top 10, and has generated nearly 700 reviews so far. Whether you're an Obama supporter or not, it's an interesting move: the campaign is using technology to decentralize the campaign effort, effectively turning thousands of individuals across the nation into micro-call centers. This effort is likely to be mirrored by future campaigns, and I wouldn't be surprised if the McCain campaign was working on something similar right now.

So how does it work? Well, the Obama '08 application's most innovative function -- labeled "Call Friends" -- looks inside your address book and organizes your contacts by battleground state, with buttons allowing you to call those contacts. This is really clever, but in retrospect pretty obvious -- you've got a device that makes phone calls, and you've got a list of people's phone numbers and addresses inside the device: put these things together and you've got a call center on the go. The application also ranks the battleground states (sorting the most contentious at the top of the list), and allows you to track statistics about who you've called and how they intend to vote. The idea is to encourage individuals to perform a function usually left to old school call centers, in which staffers and volunteers call down the voter rolls, trying to get out the vote for their candidate. Presumably the Obama campaign's hope is that legions of iPhone owners will call their friends in battleground states and convince them to vote Democratic. Project director Raven Zachary dubs these callers "Two Minute Volunteers," for the tiny slices of time required to call a friend and talk politics. (Having said that, I suspect it'll take more like ten minutes to really have a discussion. Or you might be a "One Minute Volunteer" and just leave a voicemail.)

But what about privacy?

Well, the designers of the Obama '08 application are very careful to disclose that the application doesn't "phone home" with any personal or private information -- its privacy policy is displayed inside the application, in a detailed screen that appears before you begin calling anyone (you have to opt in, in other words). The application does record anonymized statistics about the number of calls made through the application, and reports those statistics back to home base. There's no personally identifying information about who was called or who made the calls, but the campaign is able to measure the aggregate usage of the application and per-user (anonymous) statistics. Five days after launch, the application reports a nationwide total of 19,072 calls made by 4,211 people. The most active user called 100 people.

Obama iPhone app - IssuesBeyond the "Call Friends" feature, the application contains a complete list of issues that effectively constitutes the Obama/Biden platform. Labeled "Issues," the list is divided into a long series of categories including Education, Economy/Taxes, Faith, Healthcare, Iraq, and (my favorite) Women. The issues screens include direct quotes from Obama himself, along with detailed information from the campaign about the platform on that particular subject. The detail is impressive: there are pages of content for each issue -- enough to get a good idea of the specifics of the candidate's plans. Each issue can be emailed to a friend (the iPhone does email, remember) or further explored on the web. I think this is a great idea: it lends substance to the debate, and allows you to check up on what exactly the candidate thinks about a specific issue. It's the ultimate cocktail party conversation resource (as long as your cocktail parties are Obama-themed).

Other features include news, audio and video, local events, volunteer information, and of course a "Donate" button. But I think the "Call Friends" and "Issues" sections will have the biggest impact on the political process, and many of the reviews on the iTunes App Store have focused on these functions. You can learn more about the application from the Obama campaign's website, or read various developer blogs about the project.

Full disclosure: I'm friends with a few of the developers who volunteered their time to build this application. I haven't contributed to it and (as you can hopefully tell above) I'm not taking sides in the political debate -- but I am interested in technology and how it affects our daily lives, hence this blog post. In any case, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Have you used the app? Do you love it, hate it, think it's weird? Are you a McCain supporter who wants to see something similar? Let us know.

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October 7, 2008 - 12:00pm
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