Nerd Wars


Diane Francis wrote an interesting piece in a recent edition of the National Post. In it, she described the power of data analysis in shaping important public and not-for-profit debates.

The American political conversation has refined itself into a contest between tech-savvy Democrats with armies of volunteers and wealthy Republicans with backroom boys. In other words, politics has become a war between the suits and the nerds.

In 2008 and in 2012, technology helped the President Barack Obama team to out-fundraise, outspend and outvote the Republicans. In 2012, Obama won a landslide in American terms, or a 5% spread, proving that rich guys cannot buy elections down here despite the failure to properly limit campaign finance spending or make it transparent. How did this happen?

The answer is varied. Policy and candidate must appeal to the public, but it also has to do with the people who attended the Personal Democracy Forum for two days in New York City this week. These are educated, liberal, technical experts who have harnessed their passion with technology in order to defeat established vested interests from the other side.

And the advantage goes to the nerds because they have the tools to measure and muster public opinion in order to bring about electoral outcomes. For instance, Nate Silver, a hero to this movement, was able to precisely forecast the elections held in 2012 with algorithms. The only contest he did not forecast was Indiana’s where Obama captured a surprise victory.

This Forum is in its tenth year and was held at NYU, across from Washington Square – one of America’s Tahrir Squares where hippies, women, gays, minorities, Occupy Wall Street protesters, anti-war activists, pro-marijuana groups and various other alternative causes have demonstrated for decades and made a difference.

The Personal Democracy movement sprouted from here, but has been rolled out nationally and globally with the aim of empowering populations who want to get a message across or want to eliminate elites. Now these activists aim to digitize governments to create transparency and efficiency wherever possible.

On the first day of the Forum, New York City held a press conference to unveil its Checkbook NYC or New York 2.0, project that will make the city’s spending totally transparent by putting online in real time its $70-billion spending, check by check. The new accountability is the direct result of the efforts and lobbying by this movement led by founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. Their theme this year was “Think Bigger”. Both are Internet activists, bloggers, speakers, authors and also co-founders of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit dedicated to transparency in government and in campaign financing.

The Forum hosts events in other countries, designed to help disenfranchised populations, women, minorities, poor people and to help eliminate corruption. This event involved 40 speakers, active in this “space”. Among interesting highlights were:
– People and passion, based on accurate data, trumps big campaign budgets and gigantic media spends.

“We wanted to take down the Tea Party Ten and got five of them,” said Becky Bond, political director with activist organization Credo Action. The Romney campaign spent $567 million that year and the “vast majority of that money didn’t create the outcome of that election.”
Credo spent $3 million and targeted Tea Partiers, mobilized thousands of volunteers who knocked on doors in targeted election areas and made personal phone calls. Half were defeated and one, Michele Bachmann, barely won her seat. She’s since resigned because she faces a difficult battle next time.

– Grassroots activism and NGOs are not helping their cause when they ignore the importance of metrics and measurements to benchmark their performances, said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. She was the kick-off speaker and partner of Internet activist genius and pioneer, Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January. He was accused of copyright infringement and faced draconian legal costs and jail sentences that drove him into a deep depression. His tragedy placed a slight damper on opening day events and Taren quoted the last paragraph of his last blog, about confronting reality to change it, as a theme for her warning to the movement and other not-for-profit causes. She works for a group that scientifically measures outcomes of NGOs and questioned their capability. “We found only one non-profit, in the world, that had compelling evidence that giving money to them was better than giving money directly,” she said.

Research, conducted by the large labor organization, the AFL-CIO, also underscored that money did not influence voting decisions and that TV attack ads had no impact unless watched less than three days before an election. She warned against supporting organizations that cannot prove effectiveness or indulging themselves in “vanity metrics” to raise funds or justify their existence. “It’s better to measure, fail, admit and move on,” she said.

– Several speakers criticized Silicon Valley for lack of diversity and for selling out instead of creating goods and services that meet public or social needs. As tech guru Jeff Hammerbacher, who worked at Facebook, Google and others, has said: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads…That sucks.”

– The sole Republican speaker, Cyrus Krohn, is working on rebranding his party, but admitted that his party must stop sending direct mail pamphlets, making robo-calls and spending money without doing research on how people really feel. The party’s strategy was based on rearview mirror research and not real time, he added.

This Personal Democracy movement grew out of the effort, launched in 1998, that was able to harness the Internet for campaign finance in 2007 and raised $98 million with only 21 paid staff.
Harvard lecturer and activist, Nicco Mele (Shorenstein Center), spoke to urge individuals to move beyond fundraising to bringing about liberal policy outcomes and improve the operation of governments through online civic activism.

These influencers are a fascinating group that has become a liberal elite itself with enormous firepower. Many participants have launched commercially successful technologies, or speaking careers and many are committed to making “civic startups” profitable. They are committed to doing well by doing good and are a major force for change.

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