In the Back Office

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-12-01 Print this article Print

You may think Howard Dean is a flash in the pan, in a quixotic quest for the presidency. Better pay attention, though. How his campaign has used blogs, meeting services and other tools of the Web has laid bare the essential power of the Internet to make o

In the Back Office

It's mid-morning on an October Wednesday, and the new electronic lock on the front door of Dean headquarters is giving people fits. Staffers fumble with the doorknob and look confused when they are told to swipe a card-reader with their IDs. As of this morning, the rule is that the door must be locked at all times. "If you'd come in January, you could have just walked into the strategy meetings," says campaign spokesman Graff. Now Dean has reached a stature where his financial information and campaign plans demand more security.

Things are still far from corporate inside the bustling offices. With 70 people on staff and about 120 volunteers, it's a round-the-clock operation. One volunteer pads by barefoot and another young woman sports an eyebrow ring. Kasey, the West Highland White Terrier owned by Trippi and his wife, Kathy Lash, entertains visitors by rolling over when asked if he would rather die or work for George W. Bush. The openness of the Internet campaign seems contagious. "If you say something's a secret, it's a race between Trippi and Dean to disclose it," says Britt Blaser, a New York-based consultant who is volunteering for the campaign.

The heightened sense of responsibility is real, though, and it applies to the campaign's technology, too. "We're aware that issues of security and confidentiality are of increasing importance," says Dick Rowe, the director of Dean's Internet and information team. "We're also aware of the tension that brings with our open-source instincts."

Rowe, 70, joined the campaign in May for a $1 yearly salary. The former chief executive of library-services firm RoweCom, he's also a clinical psychologist and onetime associate dean at Harvard.

As the de facto chief information officer, Rowe's job is to negotiate contracts for computing services, recruit talent, and stay on budget. Rowe spends little time at his desk.

Wearing running shoes and khakis, he moves constantly from conference room to cubicle to fax machine, trying to balance the needs of the campaign with limited funds.

"We negotiate every contract and every agreement, because the governor is tight with money," says Rowe. "He hates to spend it, and that's a very real factor." Rowe won't disclose dollar figures, but he says the campaign spends less on its various technology projects than it brings in over the Net. "The Internet is a profit center for us," he says.

What Rowe would like more of is backup, fail-safe systems, to cover "what if" situations. Ideally, he would have enough bandwidth to handle even the highest demand of this peak-and-trough business, where Internet traffic spikes with fundraising activity at the end of each quarter and during special events. For instance, $800,000 of the campaign's $7.5 million in contributions for the second quarter was raised online on the last day in June.

"How much do you spend to cover 1%-2% of the time?" he muses. "We ended up paying a fair amount of money to have the response time to handle the volume."

Now Rowe is considering turning to companies such as Akamai Technologies for help in handling further volume increases. Akamai helps organizations create duplicate copies of information that are requested often, and find other means to create capacity during peak times.

The infrastructure, almost by the nature of a temporary campaign, is eclectic. Its software and databases are housed at multiple commercial co-location facilities, which are not disclosed for security reasons. These hosting centers use the Linux open-source operating system. They run the campaign's Movable Type weblog software, as well as database and transaction software from Convio, a vendor of customer-relationship software for non-profits. The campaign also uses Convio products to manage local fundraising events, house parties, Web surveys and targeted e-mail. Those programs are, for a political campaign, mission-critical. They handle credit-card donations and store more than 500,000 e-mail addresses collected by the campaign. There are also two backup credit-card transaction systems in place (one built in-house and one by a consultant), both for high-traffic periods and as a fail-safe mechanism. Convio is used for content management, but the campaign is trying out another content-management system built with the Bricolage open-source software as a supplement to Convio.

The common theme of all the technology used by the campaign, says Rowe, from the weblog to the wiki—an information-pooling tool that lets staffers post reports on media coverage—is a focus on building community.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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