Rachel Gibson's blog

Ecampaigning French style

Bonjour.... Greetings from Paris. Moving on from the whirl of the DC bubble I now take up residence in a rather less obviously political vortex. Having visiting Sciences Po and toured around the Assemblee Nationale last week it was interesting to compare the historical and somewhat grander feel of the political heart of the nation here. Of course with the politicians away and parliament in recess there is less buzz to be felt. The legislative elections are a short time away and so no doubt staffers and candidates are burrowed away in their constituencies fighting for their right to represent their fellow citizens. A long interview with a member of the UMP online team yielded some contrasting views to the US side of the pond. Despite visits from members of the U.S. ecampaign firmament to advise in the lead up to the Presidential election what emerged for me were two fascinating points of difference that clearly limit the importation of American practices. First the fact that development and use of databases are so restricted here makes it impossible to conceive of the type of 'joined up' targeting that is taking place with Dashboard, Catalist and Voter Vault among Democrats and Republicans. The online environment cannot be used to yield a rich new source of personalized contact for campaigns here which must restrict efforts to reach out and mobilize using it. Secondly the fact that no campaign advertising is permitted and fund raising efforts are so minimal also means that another major reason to do voter outreach via the web disappears in the French context. What became clear from my U.S. interviewees was the high capacity for fund-raising now associated with the digital side of operations is one clear reason for its elevation in status. Absent these stimuli the efforts that are being made stand out as even more interesting to pursue. I look forward to the interviews in week 2 to build on these insights.

Inside the Washington DC Bubble

A brief review is in order of the 2 weeks I spent in what feels like the centre of political universe - at least when you are there - the Washington DC Beltway. Aside from the traffic, which truly dwarfed any experience I have had in the UK and made me vow to stop complaining about my commute in Manchester, I enjoyed the whirlwind of interviews and campaign talks I experienced. I was generously given a space on the prestigious Campaign Management Institute (CMI) course for aspiring campaign managers run by American University Professors' Candice Nelson and Jim Thurber. The 2 week course takes students through the practice of managing a campaign from the key decisions about money and media through to database development, targeting and of course online strategies. As an academic I found it truly fascinating to think about the practical steps that face a candidate and their team in running for office and while the U.S. experience doesnt of course translate into all other contexts, the decision making tree and allocation of the money are key strategic choices for all aspirants to political office and those aiming to get them there.
The talks were extremely instructive and suffice to say that I now have a new appreciation for the hard work and committment that it takes to take a candidate from declaration of their intention to stand to the verdict at the polls. Following the series of presentations I heard I also was given the chance to follow up with the individual speakers and request interviews. This led to some one on one conversations with politicos that provided some further nuggets on the wider aspects of the campaign beyond the digital strategy that were incredibly useful. My thanks go especially to Bob Blaemire of Catalist for his insights into the world of micro-targeting and databases and Ellen Moran for long view of the 2012 campaign based on 20 years in the industry.
In addition to these 'extra' interviews that I picked up I also managed to connect with those from current and past Presidential camapigns on both the Democrat and Republican side. What appeared to emerge was a clear divide in that the former certainly view themselves in the ascendancy in terms of understanding the technology as a tool to promote their agenda of progressive change. The New Organizing Institute established after Moveon.org sprang up in the early noughties is testament to this zeal. Bringing as it does fresh talent from around the U.S. to train in field and community organization, data management and online tools. On the Republican side, and for those involved in the 2004 Bush campaign particularly, the seeds of change that Obama 2008 brought to fruition were contained in their efforts for the RNC and Bush in that earlier election. The use of Team leaders, action reward points and a neighbor to neighbor database to connect activists with supporters were all features of the Republican online strategy developed by Michael Turk, Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn.
Two interesting books were pointed out to me as further reference for those interested in tracing how the online technology is changing Campaigns on the Cutting Edge edited by Richard Semiatin (CQ Press) and Nathaniel Pearlman's Margin of Victory (Praeger) both of which offer a practitioner take on how technology is changing campaigns. Very useful practical insider information that ordinarily takes months of interview to compile. Thanks to Michael and Candy for their passing the references on.
All in all there was too much to compress into one blog post that I took away from the fortnight I spent in DC. The sense of importance of the outcome of the race was palpable and also the partisan divisions across the two sides seemed stronger than ever before. The final thought I will take away from one of my interviewees was the view that the digital campaign has still no quite come of age and the sign that it has will come when the Campaign Manager for a major race is a digital director. Previously its been the field organizer, the fund raiser or the paid media guru that have advanced to the role of overall Head honcho of the campaign. This day is clearly not that far off - perhaps the next election cycle in the U.S. What is clear is that the online team now have an automatic place around the head table of any serious campaign for office in the U.S. and are closely involved in almost every other dimension of the campaign, giving them a birdseye view and a lot of work!

Day 10: Plotting my return

The final day of my placement saw me leave with a sense of momentum and a commitment to return later in the year to continue some of the conversations I have now started. George Wright (Head of the prototyping unit)met with me to review the past fortnight and make some plans for how to capitalize on my visit. We quickly identified several key 'outcomes' in terms of our having raised the profile of my research in Manchester on sentiment analysis of Twitter and how this tied into current interests in his team. Chris and Sean from the group are particularly interested in pushing this forward and later in the year I will return to present the findings from the analysis. Also my involvement in a series of research fora or 'sandpits' with Google and colleagues at the University of Glasgow and Edinburgh over the next year was seen as a further opportunity to share and exchange ideas and develop joint grant ideas with the BBC as a possible partner. The core funding for the R&D dept at the BBC means that they can afford to be selective about what projects they choose to invest time and money in. So I will keep my antenna poised and ready from here to pick up funding opportunities likely to appeal. Lunchtime saw a quick tube journey over to Old Street to meet with Alberto Nardelli, the founder of Tweetminster. His work to expand his site from a channel to find the tweets of your MP to a news site using Twitter as feed has paid dividends with over 100k visitors per day clocking up. The idea of bypassing news editors and using tweets as a filter to identify the main stories of public interest and conversation is a simple one although I am sure involves a complex back-end technology to make it work. We discussed implications of this new mode of news delivery for big news organizations and producers like the BBC. The tweetminster model removes the need for a 'middle-man' essentially in setting the news agenda. Its a different way of looking at user generated content (ugc) and one that I would like to pick up in my future converseations with folks at the UBC hub at the Beeb. The next step for Tweetminster is an interesting one. What happens if Twitter loses its pre-eminent micro-blogging position? Nardelli clearly had thought about this and come to the sanguine insight that even if Twitter were to fade, the function of micro-blogging has now been established and a new and even improved version will replace it. After promising to send on a couple of research reports Tweetminster had conducted into twitter use in the 2010 election and AV referendum it was back to Henry Wood House and onto a final meeting with Emily Chaplin, Business Manager at Audio and Music (A+M). Emily had produced the highly effective departmental meeting I had attended in my first week. We talked about how she approached the task and it was clear that the secret lies in advance planning and identifying the projects and people that can provide the right rhythm for an hour long 'show and tell'. The need to forget or at least distance yourself from the 'script' and engage with your audience and be willing to make a mistake was impressed on me. Use of visuals rather than text is a 'must' in a short presentation. I am not sure if I will be able to implement all of the tips and advice but I really found the conversation inspired me to increase my 'user friendly' communication skills at my next talk. Finally it was off to the Greenman and my chance to buy a round for the R&D staff for the welcome they had extended to me. Thankyou Guys! I look forward very much to my return visit.

Day 8 & 9: Back to White City

More contacting on Wednesday to confirm meetings and quite a bit of research on my article looking at the growth of 'citizen-initiated campaigning'. Its an idea I outlined in the discussion with Rory Cellan-Jones on Monday and one that I am keen to develop as a key change that is occurring within elections. Professional campaigners are being displaced by the growth of amateurs who use online tools to raise money, recruit members and get out the vote (GOTV) for their chosen political candidates or party. It has a resonance in the citizen journalism model that is emerging to challenge and also support established media organizations such as the BBC. The rise of user generated content (UGC) continued as a theme of the discussions I have had since I came to London last week. It is clearly one that the BBC takes very seriously and seeks to harness. I was fortunate enough to talk with Matthew Eltringham on Thursday of week 2 about his work to set up the UGC hub within the News division. A highly engaging discussion led us through the development of the hub and forces that drove it into the mainstream of news operations. It was a combination of events and particularly the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 and 7/7 London Bombings that secured the status of ugc as a legitimate and significant source of BBC news footage and content. The photos and eye witness accounts that poured in gave the BBC both extensive and early notice of the tragedies unfolding. The targeting of the BBC by citizen journalists is a testimony to its global prominence as a news corporation, although Matthew did say that as social media platforms such as Youtube have gained increased profiles, the traffic has fragmented and gone elsewhere. Overall the value of ugc he thought was inestimable and a fact of news gathering life now. The integration to existing practice was a matter of course, and taking a 'social shaping' perspective, he argued that the job of the journalist had not changed as a consequence of social media. Sources still needed to be verified and the high impact social media stories were those that got airplay on the broadcast media. Moving on to TV centre and another coffee in the Doughnut, i.e. the circular bit in the middle of the building I met with Bill Thompson, technology writer and presenter of numerous BBC programmes and reports on the social, political and legal impact of computer mediated communication and the Web. Combining both computer science and philosophy Bill has a wide ranging and stimulating perspective on the technology landscape both within the BBC and beyond. We talked about his new role to transform the BBC archives into publicly accessible resources and the fundamental shift this entails in the views on content ownership and copyright by programme makers and producers. His early work with websites for politicians such as Ann Taylor and efforts to move the Labour party online saw him cement relationships with a range of early adopters and pioneers who have also since moved on to key positions in government and the media. Despite now working full-time for the BBC, he clearly cherishes his independent and influential status, carved out after his many years of working with a range of key organizations in the arts and creative industries. Asked about the one thing that perhaps had most shifted within politics as a result of the development of the Web, he identified the increased transparency and scrutiny that public figures now face. The extent of fact checking and rebuttals that proliferate online now mean that our politicians find it very hard to escape accusations of inconsistency and 'back tracking'. And while an important new means of enforcing accountability, the rise of 'gotcha' journalism also carries perils for making our politics a place where only the brave or those 'without sin' can tread. Perhaps the result is that we will see a raising of the bar in terms of what is deemed unacceptable conduct. Despite these qualms it was great to see that time had clearly not withered his enthusiasm to bring the benefits of the digital age to wider society. As an educator I look forward to his online archiving initiative bearing fruit and bringing the BBC and its extensive collection of news and information out into the public domain.

Working at the Beeb: ....and on the Seventh Day

Well not quite a day of rest but one of relative quiet in terms of being out and about in the labyrinthine BBC corridors. I managed to arrange a meet up with one of the founders of the influential Tweetminster news site, http://tweetminster.co.uk/ which is very much in keeping with the emergent Twitter theme of this visit. Alberto Nardelli was happy to talk with me about his work and my work later in the week – so i will look forward to that particular ‘twitter-fest’ and report back. Otherwise I tried to follow up a few leads of people to meet, particularly on the Lab UK front, which is an interesting outreach initiative run by the BBC, aimed at making science more accessible to the public http://www.bbc.co.uk/labuk/. This fits in with the ideas we presented last week to the R&D prototyping team about citizen social science portal. So I am keen to talk with those involved and see if they have ideas and insights into how we might roll that out. Engaging with the public in general is something that I hope this visit to the BBC is going provide some practical advice on. Otherwise I attempted to reschedule a couple of other meetings – unsuccessfully… diaries here do fill up very quickly I realise. The good news was that I made some considerable manuscript writing hay while the sun was attempting to shine into Room 101 of Henry Wood House. Also the results came in for the internet effects paper I am working on with Manchester colleagues. Interestingly it looks like information gathering online can serve as a significant factor in prompting people to go on and vote, controlling for education, age and a range of civic skills and internet familiarity. We are now testing the indirect impact via interest and increased efficacy to see how the e-news effect occurs. So does it stimulate people’s interest in politics and the election and/or make them feel more competent in understanding the political world.

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