Voter Activation Network
Most Democratic candidates already know about the Voter Activation Network: State Democratic parties sell or give away licenses for candidates to use its software to generate voter lists for campaigning and get-out-the-vote operations. (State Democratic Party organizations get it for free.)
Strictly speaking, though, VAN doesn't sell data. The voter records that users see are licensed from Catalist or the Democratic National Committee. What VAN does is build software for clients to augment, segment, and work with those voter files. VAN's president, Mark Sullivan, says that working with Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 pushed the firm to innovate in volunteer management and online activism, as well. This year, VAN has also moved into the business of building public websites that make use of their software and databases — generating call lists from a VAN database for volunteers to do phone-banking from their mobile phones, for example, according to Sullivan.
"Candidates are coming to us on the first day they're putting their campaigns together because the public website is the first nasty thing they have to figure out," says Sullivan.
This is the product of a long evolution from VAN's beginnings, in 2001, when Sullivan — then a tech consultant for Sen. Tom Harkin — built (with former business partner Steve Adler) the VAN's first iteration for the Iowa Democratic Party, Harkin, and Gov. Tom Vilsack, both of whom were up for re-election.
"Handling the voter file was this extraordinary complexity and nobody did it well," Sullivan recalls.
The idea of the system built for Harkin and Vilsack, he says, was to "take the voter file and literally put it on the Internet."
Then VAN did the same thing next door, in Missouri; then in another state, and another, until, in 2007, the DNC approached VAN to take this approach national. Now, says Sullivan, the DNC has a national voter database accessible via the Internet to authorized users, anywhere.
Early on, VAN's focus was on field operations: They were one of the first to experiment with handheld devices, putting some field capability on PalmPilots. Earlier this year, VAN released an iPhone app.
But from shortly before the Obama campaign to the present, VAN's expertise grew. The company has been paying more and more attention to volunteer management. Sullivan describes it, loosely, as a question of scheduling: Finding ways to match available people with available tasks, events, and so on. Going forward, VAN will be focusing on resource management, answering questions like: Where can we put volunteers? How many seats are in each location? How many phone lines? Is there Internet access?
The next step is enabling more volunteerism via the Web.
"The focus now really for us is overwhelmingly, I think, in that public web space," Sullivan says. "This is new. We've just arrived in this space. To us it's kind of like the ultimate intractable problem, the disconnect between what happens on the public website and what happens in the back-end database."
Voter Activation Network's core product is software that allows users to segment and manage lists of voters, then export those lists to wherever they need to be. The resulting selection from the VAN database could populate the recipient list in an e-mail blast application, like the one that VAN offers; a printout for a volunteer about to go door-knocking; VAN's built-in distributed phonebank tool, which presents volunteers with a series of phone numbers, scripts, and after-call report forms; the company's predictive dialer, which uses a web-based application to take a campaign staffer through a similar sequence of calls; wherever.
VAN software also allows for robo-calling: You export a list of voters for whom you have phone numbers, upload a pre-recorded message, and set the robot loose, so to speak, according to Sullivan. When we spoke to him about VAN in March, he said that robo-polling functionality was also in development and nearing release.
Developed over the course of the Obama campaign, volunteer management software is designed to allow an organization to track volunteer activity, manage volunteers, and schedule them for events.
Sullivan also said VAN has specially built software to track union membership and organizing activities. VAN acquired a small software company that develops union-building tools, New Union Work Systems, in 2009.
For the Obama campaign, Voter Activation Network served as the central repository of constituent information for all the campaign's activity, Sullivan said. This required some serious engineering, he said: VAN received nightly database dumps of information from the database that powered MyBarackObama.com, the campaign's social networking site, which was built by Blue State Digital. In a similar way, the VAN database populated the call lists that the campaign's BSD-built distributed phonebanking tools provided to volunteers, and was the final destination for all the feedback coming back to the campaign about voter interaction.
Varies, depending on who you are and which organization you're using to get VAN software.
AFL-CIO; Obama for America; Democratic Party of Oregon