Digital Politics: An Interview With CivicSpace Founder Zack Rosen

Also on my O’Reilly blog:

We may have the seductiveness of the amazon.com shopping cart to thank for CivicSpace, an enhanced content management system (CMS) that has spawned many of the leading political web sites, starting with that of the Howard Dean for President campaign.

As an impoverished University of Illinois computer science student, Zack Rosen browsed his way across titles such as Emergence, Smart Mobs and Linked – and then accidentally bought them all. When the expensive pile arrived, he figured he might as well read it, and he quickly found himself absorbed in ideas of connection via networks. At the same time, he began hearing more and more about longshot presidential candidate Howard Dean, and how his campaign was using the web to find supporters and raise money. Things clicked. Rosen entered his zip code for a Dean meetup, and soon he found himself working with a team of like-minded technologists, adapting the Drupal CMS to build Deanspace, which would eventually evolve into CivicSpace, a robust and growing platform for grassroots online political organizing (aka netroots), especially in its pairing with CiviCRM, a politically-oriented Customer relationship management system.

I came across CivicSpace while researching open source technologies for montereycountydemocrats.org. Our team elected to custom code the main public site, while also using or experimenting with pre-built solutions such as WordPress for our blog, and CivicSpace, Advokit and dotproject, among others, for our internal needs. CivicSpace has proven to be one of the most robust and usable of them all.

I interviewed Zack recently via email:

How did Deanspace come together?

It started a simple web page and mailing lists and was fleshed out in IRC chats and on our wiki. Pretty soon we were building software (on top of Drupal) and deploying one DeanSpace site after another. I dropped out of school after the summer of ’03 to work in the Dean campaign headquarters on the web team. My primary responsibility was to service the web technology needs of the state organizations, main constituent groups, and grassroots groups. We leveraged the DeanSpace software to a great extent and members of the DeanSpace community were very instrumental in supporting the many projects in which it was deployed.

What were the design goals?

We were focused on providing a toolkit that would help grassroots groups publish a website, sign up contacts, organize events, collaborate, and communicate seamlessly with the wider campaign effort through web-standard data sharing technology (RSS, FOAF, etc.).

Why was Drupal chosen as the platform?

#1) It was built on LAMP (PHP) by far the most supported web-app environment. This made it much easier to find engineering help (wider pool of talent) and much cheaper and easier to host the software.
#2) It has the cleanest code-base and provided the most powerful web-app framework of all the other CMS’s by far
#3) The development community focus was on community websites.

How well did it work?

It has worked better than we could ever have dreamed. Without Drupal, DeanSpace likely wouldn’t have worked nearly as well and CivicSpace almost certainly wouldn’t exist. CivicSpace is now poised to become the dominant web application platform for the non-profit, NGO, and advocacy web-technology sector due to the power and phenominal success of the Drupal project. And we’re just getting started.

What are some of the most important things you’ve learned since, and what improvements have they led to?

I’ve spent most of the past year steeped in the world business more than technology. While technology is fueling the CivicSpace project, the largest and most complex obstacles we have confronted are in the creation of the business infrastructure that will allow us to successfully support and sustain the development and use of the technology. This is the remaining hurdle we are required to overcome to scale our community and our platform out to the millions of organizations in the world who need access to the tools. With the establishment of the CivicSpace Foundation under Compumentor and with CivicSpace LLC building an on-demand CivicSpace service the remaining pieces are quickly being put in place.

CivicSpace LLC is a social enterprise focused providing a CivicSpace on-demand service. They are now beginning alpha testing with a select group of resellers. I am the Director of the CivicSpace Foundation which is fiscally sponsored by Compumentor. We are focused expanding our community and serving the needs of the organizations, development communities, and servicing firms we work with.

What’s happening with Civicspace & CiviCRM?

CiviCRM is now included as the primary CRM system in CivicSpace. It allows our users to utilize a fully featured best-of-breed open-source CRM system fully integrated into the CivicSpace platform.

Do you have any favorite Civicspace sites?

nextbillion.net < - nominated for a Webby
musicforamerica.org < - one of the first CS sites jerrybrown.org < - very cool new candidate site citizenspeak.org < - awesome free web-service built on CS
What would you consider the major competitor and/or partner technologies?

Competitors: Kintera, GetActive, Convio

Partners: Drupal, OpenNgo (creators of CiviCRM), and all of our vendor firms

What’s your assessment of the impact on politics of this kind of technology, and where do you see all this going in the future?

We will see 🙂 We are building the most powerful community organizing technology in the world and a channel to deliver it to any size organization, regardless of budget. If we are successful I think CivicSpace will play a definitive role in the intersection of society and technology in general as well as in political communities and events. Two years ago, when the Dean Campaign ended, we started CivicSpace to make sure that the “next time around” we would have the proper infrastructure available that would enable us to much more effectively build and support the new and radically more powerful kinds of communities we had proven are possible to form. We are almost there.

What have you learned about the intersection of politics and technology that you didn’t know when you started with the Dean campaign?

The extent and speed at which the social medium new that technology makes possible will govern the future of the political process and campaigns.


An in-depth podcast interview with Zack Rosen can be found at:

http://lullabot.com/podcast/drupal_podcast_no_11

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