THE BLOG
03/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The 2008 Google Docs Campaign

The walls at Google's Washington, D.C. inaugural ball displayed letters that students and teachers wrote to the incoming president. It was called the "Letters to the Next President" project, sponsored by Google and the National Writing Project. A special website was set up to use "Google Docs," allowing students and teachers from around the country to write collaborative essays to the incoming president.

It seemed fitting to have Google Docs be the center of the project, since this year Google's technology revolutionized the way grassroots campaigning is run and organized. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton, and then John McCain, by a huge grassroots operation and the small donations of many. While the presidential contenders had enlisted technologies such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn, which all received a great deal of attention, it was Google Docs which had the most amount of influence, in spite of receiving the least amount of attention.

On June 30, 2008, Paul (an Oakland-based Obama supporter who blogs under the pseudonym "kid oakland") proclaimed, "Sometimes that wonky, geeky, techie solution [Google Docs spreadsheets] is actually a powerful tool for change." In a DailyKos blog post titled "How to use Google Docs and why you should care," Paul wrote about attending "Camp Obama" to learn how to become a community organizer for the campaign. He blogged, "One of the important yet simple tools that my community group...has implemented is using Google Docs to track our new volunteers."

Of all the elements used to organize and campaign for this presidential election, the free, democratic and office-minded Google software might have had the most measurable impact on the outcome.

Google Docs is the single platform that enabled Obama's effective organization an historic fundraising success. The Obama campaign was aware that this had become a major player in the grassroots space, sparking a revolution in the way people self-organize and conduct grassroots efforts and political campaigns. Since a campaign is constantly on a quest for money and voters, Obama's grassroots organization valued agility over hierarchy; online collaboration became a necessity.

Google Docs is best described as a free Microsoft Office for the web. Its platform provides four critical components: an online word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation package, and forms. These documents "live" on the internet and teams of people with permission-based access both read and simultaneously edit from anywhere in the world. An advantage of the platform is the automatic sharing of data. This allows many to collaborate on a document or data being presented, thereby ensuring equal access to information and creating a space in which information will not be lost in transit. Free, collaborative, and real-time are all elements that make Google Docs an election tool of choice.

The tools were originally built out of the daily needs of software engineers who work in constant contact across the globe. But it does not surprise Ken Norton, a product manager at Google, to see political campaigns embracing this technology. He says, "People are out in battleground states but need to be virtually all around the world."

And while the Obama campaign used Google Docs spreadsheets to keep tallies and collect information, the platform was used this election to organize at all levels in politics.

"Lists are about people"
Lists are something the Executive Director of Massachusetts's Republican Party (Mass GOP), Robert Willington, knows probably too much about. His staff's typical day at their Boston headquarters used to be spent trying to reconcile different lists of information -- until the Mass GOP started using Google Docs.

Mass GOP headquarters has a shared drive for internal office use only, allowing anyone inside the building access to a document as well as the ability to make changes. Willington talks about the shared drive as if it were Dial-up and he had just discovered WiFi. "The Internet is a shared drive magnified tremendously that all of our activists, candidates, and committee members can use," he said. "When I started I found a tremendous amount of information on our share drive that needed to get out to our base, our volunteers and our candidates."

Prior to moving the party to Google Docs, a candidate spent valuable time obtaining relatively simple information by travelling from town hall to town hall. Willington believed that work should have already been collected and easy to obtain once a candidate entered the race. This would be done by decentralizing the entire operation and empowering "Joe the activist."

These lists are the GOP's grassroots lists, or "the crux of the Republican Party in Massachusetts," says Willington. "It was always incumbent on the staff to make sure that list was up to date." They were trying to ensure that correct information was obtained from each town, and that the lists were up to date. When that was complete, the lists only had small bits of information. Willington solved this problem by placing the lists on Google Docs, where access became available to all of his candidates and town committees to update and use. "They can log in now and look at their own town committee and say 'Joe Smith, I have his e-mail and phone number and can put it here,'" Willington explains.

Crowdsourcing
Essentially, Willington loosened his leash on some of the powers he holds as the executive director, handing them directly over to the people. "We use Google Docs as an organizational tool to better efficiently manage our time," he said. "It is entirely a conservative philosophy where the locals know what is going on in their local communities better than we do."

Call it "crowdsourcing," or outsourcing to the crowds. Instead of having a few paid staffers spending long, arduous days dealing with the drudgery of updating centralized lists, hundreds of volunteers can now do the updating in less time than it takes to grab a cup of coffee from the local Starbucks.

"A new generation of web tools has flipped this presidential campaign upside down and reduced the burden on campaign managers," Google spokesperson Jason Freidenfelds wrote in an e-mail interview. "Grassroots volunteers for both Obama's and McCain's teams were teaching one another to use collaborative online documents (with Google Docs) to organize from the bottom up."

One face in the crowd was Marna Riser, who volunteered to help with Netroots Nation (formally known as Yearly Kos), a yearly convention that grew out of Daily Kos users wanting to get together from around America. The 2008 conference was attended by over 2,000 people, 200 members of the press, and a couple hundred speakers (including Al Gore). Riser conducted logistics somersaults while organizing Netroots Nation with the help of Google Docs.

Riser is now Netroots Nation's manager of development and community projects, and volunteered to help organize technology policy events for the Obama campaign. Google Docs is how Riser shines. Netroots Nation is a completely virtual organization, with staff located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma County, San Diego, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach and New York City. "Putting Netroots Nation together in a spreadsheet and having to e-mail the changes around to everybody just did not work. Google Docs was a lifesaver for us and we use it extensively," Riser said.

Making so much information available to so many people quickly raises questions about security. While most information is public, organizations do have to be cautious about people obtaining access and ruining the documents.

Willington and Riser aren't fazed by the issue. "That is the case with all new media - you have to have trust and faith," Willington states. "A lot of times people are too guarded and don't take chances. Then, the biggest risk is not taking a risk. We have to try new things. We have to try and be creative."

Collaboration Saves Time
"Using this technology makes possible what never would have been just a few years ago without having to go to the extent of conference calls or additional travel," said Riser, while sitting in her California home office.

Google understands collaboration is a major part of how this generation works, as did the Obama campaign which collected lots of small donations, adding up to a large sum of money. They organized from the ground up and toppled old political institutions by moving quickly.

Time was -- and is -- important. Being able to access something where and when you want to is even more important. Google understands that collaboration will save time, but not cut corners. Google recognizes political campaigns spend more time away from their computers and out on the political campaign trail. Knocking on doors with a mobile device in hand, pulling information in real time from a Google Doc is the future for all successful campaigns. Probably not Facebook.