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The engineering of civics

obamateamLast night I attended a presentation by the engineering leads from the Obama For America Campaign.  The event was held at the Black Box theater on CU Boulder’s stunning urban campus, the largest in Colorado.  Arriving at the theater, I circumvented the waitlist line and claimed my seat, front row and center.

Despite being billed as the Engineering Dream Team, the guys spoke humbly about their success.  Each one in their own way emphasized they were proudest not of their technical achievement, rather, they were proudest about creating a new standard for technology-enabled citizen empowerment.  The team credited leadership with making an innovative operational decision from the start.

In the beginning, leadership created a startup.  And it was good.  Operating in startup mode meant bringing in senior engineering talent from industry, rather than go with the established model of  outsourcing a campaign to consultants.  Moving into familiar roles, the senior-level engineering team was able to quickly establish an agile methodology, which allowed them to make data-driven decisions.

From their vantage point deep within the eye of the storm, the technical team kept a steady hand as the campaign scaled from $0 to $169 Million in revenue and 180 employees in 18 months.

Insanely intense growth like that required lots of *not* seeing family and friends.  Instead, there was 18 hour days, TV crews, and notable VIP’s including Eric Schmidt and Ed Tufte.

A few other highlights include:

  • Onboarding 300 interns in 2 days
  • The entire system was virtual (AWS)
  • 200 apps were built
  • Developers were free to develop in their preferred frameworks

I left the presentation feeling inspired.  One particular insight stayed with me.  Canvassers were trained to use a “Story of Me” technique to develop actionable rapport with the public.  The Story of Me technique struck me as a compelling instructional design technique, which in turn led me to think about elearning.  Could elearning be a useful tool for canvassers?  Could elearning be a game-changing civics tool?

There were several examples where digital tools came up short. Gamification was explored, but nothing stuck.  In another case the team ditched an app that had been designed to assist the canvassers by automating logging at the point of contact.  This was a high-value app but paper simply worked better in the field.

Elearning would also not work well in the field.  However, it could be effective when used in a supplemental, sustained capacity to deliver civics knowledge.  When people understand that every-day issues such as running schools, building roads, and helping people who are disabled.  But elearning could also be used as marketing to address timely, hot-button issues.  Would this usage be considered lobbying?  There are significant issues to address.

Thomas Jefferson said  knowledge and learning are indispensable for living in freedom.  The presenters affirmed Jefferson’s statement by noting, in closing, that despite enduring extreme hardship they endured during their time on the team, that they had decided to not return to “selling widgets”.  They opted to continue working on projects that use technology to empower citizens in civic matters.

There is a compelling opportunity at hand to use elearning as a tool to nurture an informed populace; a people empowered by knowledge and active in their own governance.