If ever there was a good year for technology to save democracy, this might be it. Political prognosticators are predicting that about $8 billion will be spent by all sides trying to influence who gets elected president in 2012. Liberals were horrified by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which removed limits on how much money people and corporations can spend supporting the candidates of their choice. Their fear is this money will flow to Republicans primarily. On the other hand, conservatives often complain about the political whims of Hollywood actors and other elites, while Tea Party members point to crony capitalism having an undue influence on the Obama administration.
Microsoft is offering one way to put more power back into the hands of the people with the Townhall platform for citizen participation it introduced last year, which was used by U.S. House Republicans for their America Speaking Out crowdsourcing effort, in which citizens were invited to submit ideas to be incorporated into the Republican platform.
Microsoft offers the code for Townhall as open source, although it requires that the software run on its Windows Azure cloud hosting platform. Running a public forum like this in the cloud is beneficial when demand outstrips your expectations, as it did for the House Republicans, said Evan Burfield, CEO of Synteractive. "They expected they might get 10,000 people in the first week, and they got 400,000," he said.
"It was fascinating to watch the long-tail effect play out," he said, referring to the Web's ability to reach people of all tastes and opinions. At first, the site was flooded with fringe viewpoints, but they were soon filtered out by the voting process. "Within the first week or two, most of the activity was revolving around relatively mainstream ideas," he said.
On the other hand, the ideas that persisted didn't necessarily follow the Republican script, he said. "One of the top ideas was to legalize and tax marijuana. Another was that abortion should be safe, rare, and legal."
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Synteractive has created a product on top of Townhall called Social Rally. Townhall itself provides all the basic components required to build a citizen participation website, including rich connectivity to Facebook, but the list of configuration chores is potentially daunting for non-developers, Burfield said. Social Rally provides those capabilities in a neater package. In addition to being used by political campaigns, Social Rally has been adopted for other community-oriented efforts such as NBC's Education Nation discussions on improving education in the United States.
Within the next two months, Synteractive plans to release a further simplified, self-service version of Social Rally that will provide free accounts for testing and small campaigns, with upgrades available, Burfield said. To deploy the version that's available today, you have to hire his firm upfront and allow a couple of weeks for setup.
Developers can also access Social Rally as a platform, changing the parts of the system that handle identity, reputation, profiles, and connections to other social networks. The initial examples will be in C#, one of the Microsoft programming languages, but other languages such as PHP will be supported as well.
The underlying Townhall software is available as open source and is getting regular updates from Microsoft's developers, but isn't yet getting significant community contributions, Burfield said. Abe Pachikara, a lead cloud evangelist for Microsoft, said the developers are considering adding Townhall to CodePlex, a Microsoft site that hosts open source projects.
The Obama campaign in 2008 famously mastered the use of technology to get out the vote, for example with an iPhone app that made it easy for people to call their friends whenever they had a few minutes to spare and interactively log whether or not that person had already voted early or absentee, with the tally stored in a central database. In 2012, technology will be a tool used by all sides--although invariably some will use it better than others, Burfield said.
"We provide the technology, but we've also gathered some observations about who has used the technology well and who hasn't," he said. "The most successful ones have a very clear concept of what they are trying to do with it." Applying the principles of gamification can help as well. In the House Republicans' effort, "there was nothing formal, but the people who generated a lot of points tended to get calls from their congressmen to talk about the ideas they had submitted."
That's one way technology can help get the people's voices heard.
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