It did not get a lot of media attention last month, but Napster co-founder and Facebook's first president Sean Parker took a major step towards building his new company - Brigade Media - that hopes to transform voter engagement at the state and federal level. Parker joins a growing list of technology leaders and billionaires who have formed for-profit and non-profit ventures over the past two years seeking to capitalize on the interest of political and advocacy campaigns in using new technologies to further their cause.
Brigade announced in mid-November that eight groups will partner with them to use their engagement platform. The advocacy groups announced include the Rainforest Action Network and Americans for Tax Reform.
While it is not clear what precisely Parker and Brigade are building, the fledgling company is expected to launch early next year. They have been funded by over $9 million of Parker's own money. Other investors include Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff and early Google backer Ron Conway.
The Brigade website states that their platform is for "making sure your voice is heard, and your actions meaningful." The site also states that "Together we're going to restore you, the voter, to the center of our democracy."
This quest for the voter is part of a significant movement towards using technology to engage U.S. citizens in the political process and has led to an increasingly more sophisticated set of tools to identify and target key voting groups. These tools are going to be more heavily used than ever before by both Democrats and Republicans for the biggest and most expensive campaign in America over the next two years: the race for the White House.
When Mitt Romney lost his race against President Obama two years ago, it was widely documented that a major reason for his defeat was the collapse of his computerized network which was supposed to target likely voters and turnout big numbers at the polls on Election Day. Meanwhile, Obama's own technology platform performed spectacularly and provided his campaign team with crucial up-to-the-minute data in the key states that the President needed to ensure victory.
Determined not to make this same mistake again, the Republicans have sought the help of a number of new technology targeting and engagement firms that have become major players in this space. One of the largest is i360, a firm that links voter data with consumer information drawn from credit bureaus, social networks, and publicly available information covering income, ethnicity, and residence location. Their website claims that i360 "brings you hundreds of data points on every American adult that is currently or potentially politically active."
Not to be outdone, a number of similar data mining firms are increasingly being used by Democrats. Among these are Catalist, which claims "clean and current data for 280 million individuals," and NGP VAN, whose website is bannered with the pitch: "Want to use Obama's tools for your organization?"
These are some of the biggest voter data providers on the market today, but there is also a cottage industry that has sprung up recently of groups and companies offering technology tools to give voters a voice of their own. Foremost among these has been these has been Fwd.us, an advocacy group formed by Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg with the intent to pressure Congress into action on key tech industry issues such as immigration and patent reform.
One of the Fwd.us partners is Countable.us, a political app that tracks federal legislation and encourages users to support or oppose a particular bill. When the user clicks on "Yea" or "Nay," a message is then sent to their elected representative in Congress.
Another company seeking to capitalize on this space is OneClickPolitics which was founded by a former McKinsey executive. In addition to letting users connect with elected officials, they provide a broad-based platform for advocacy groups to use. The company is one of the tools offered by NationBuilder, a software platform for political organizers that was started by technology executive Jim Gilliam.
The method for targeting voters through online advertising has become more sophisticated as well. Every campaign must now rely on ways to break through the digital clutter using firms such as CampaignGrid, which earlier this year added mobile ads targeted to registered voters as part of their technology arsenal, and DSPolitical whose clients include Fwd.us and a number of labor unions.
The rise of technology as a key driver in political campaigns means that industry figures such as Parker and Zuckerberg could become important players in future elections at the state and national levels. It will be interesting to see what the rollout of their new products and initiatives will have on Congress and the Presidential campaign over the next two years.