A Lesson in Open Source
Feb 28, 2005
For the 150,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers, paper forms, phone calls and hours spent standing in line are no longer current events; instead, they are consigned to the history books.
Made up of current and retired New York City public school teachers and the largest union local in the world, the UFT is the sole bargaining agent for most of the nonsupervisory educators that work in the New York City public school system. It represents roughly 74,000 teachers and 17,000 classroom paraprofessionals, along with secretaries, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, adult education teachers and 32,000 retired members.
With 6,000 new teachers added to its membership every year and a desire to vastly increase its portfolio of member services, UFT's archaic paper-driven business methods and static, noninteractive Web site simply couldn't keep up.
Amid a three-phase design and deployment campaign, new services offered by the UFT range from Web-based course enrollment, which replaces a mail-in paper form, to health care benefits from the UFT Welfare Fund. According to UFT President Randi Weingarten, the fund has provided upward of $1 billion in benefits to union members over its 30-year history. Breaking news, pension and financial services, updated salary schedules, and tax advice are also being betterprovided to educators thanks to the new online environment.
"With our growing membership, the time to rethink the delivery of services and information could wait no longer," said Joe Vigilante, the UFT's director of information services. "With all of our data on [an IBM] legacy AS/400, we needed to get that information directly into the hands of the people who needed it most, our members."
To improve service while managing costs, Vigilante's team chose a complete opensource solution with multiprocessor, rack-mounted ProLiant DL servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. running Red Hat Inc.'s Enterprise Linux operating system. There isn't a new server running Solaris or Unix in sight, although an IBM iSeries (formerly AS/400) remains. The only Microsoft Corp. software in use at UFT is the Office suite of productivity applications and one legacy Exchange Server for e-mail.
It's close to the typical evolutionary pattern, according to Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst with Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "These are new applications and sometimes represent additional horsepower added in parallel to existing systems," Hewitt said. According to his research, 22 percent of companies polled are deploying open-source systems not to replace older technology but to deploy new applications.
Regardless of the strategy, Linux is earning high marks not just as a technical solution but as a financial one that results in immediate and significant cost advantages.
"The Linux open-source route provided us with a way to avoid license fees and learn from a vast community of developers and users with issues similar to ours," said Vigilante.
That's a theme that's echoed in disparate users, from off-the-leading-edge, paper-based organizations such as the UFT to nextgeneration Web-based startups. For example, Feedster Inc., a San Francisco search engine and syndicator of XML Web content, would never have gotten off the ground if not for the savings achieved by implementing Linux.
"It didn't make sense to us or our investors to pay huge Windows and [Sun Microsystems Inc.] Solaris license fees and buy expensive support contracts," said Feedster CEO Scott Rafer.
"And for the price of a single Oracle license, we got the top-tier MySQL product, direct access to the people who developed it, and a worldwide community ready to help anytime."
Those licenses were nearly a showstopper. With its entire operation — and its lawyers — based in New York, the UFT refused to sign contracts whose terms would be governed by the laws of any other state. Red Hat, for example, is based in North Carolina. "For large enterprise corporations, this isn't a problem," said Vigilante. "But as a labor union, we were ready to walk away if vendors would not change their terms for us." Change them they did.
A significant challenge faced by UFT was maintaining high Web site availability after migrating hosting and operations from a third-party service provider to UFT's own network. Outsourced in 1997 to offload management chores — a skill that did not yet exist at UFT — the site offered only static, nontransactional general content. Updating the site with important news for its members often took hours, which is typical when management is performed by a third party with many different customers and priorities.
All Web services now operate from redundant servers installed on-site. Page templates were designed using Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver, according to Bill Stamatis, UFT's Web content manager. Running Red Hat Linux, the Web servers also host Krang, an advanced opensource content management and Web publishing system.
With 6,000 new teachers added to its membership every year and a desire to vastly increase its portfolio of member services, UFT's archaic paper-driven business methods and static, noninteractive Web site simply couldn't keep up.
Krang provides a story and media-editing environment, letting Perl programmers customize it to control the data entered in its content editor as well as the way templates and content are brought together to build output. Krang supports the Red Hat, Debian and Gentoo versions of Linux; the Fedora Project, and FreeBSD. With Krang handling content management, the content itself resides in a MySQL database from Sweden's MySQL AB. Web pages are served by Apache Software Foundation's Apache HTTP Server.
"We're not a [24-by-7] startshop, so we needed to plan, build and test a redundant environment with automated failover to accommodate any outage," said UFT's Vigilante. Working with Plus Three LP, a technology provider specializing in solutions for labor unions, based in New York, UFT established a notification system that alerts key personnel of any Web outage and initiates automated failover to the backup servers. "We hope never to use it," Vigilante added.
Choice of Platforms
In moving away from its static Web site and paper-based system of membership services, UFT and Plus Three crafted a three-phase approach. The key to success, according to Deirdre Hannigan, Plus Three's vice president of client services, was to move cautiously and maintain tight budgetary control.
"Phase 1 was homework, learning their processes and analyzing the current technology environment," said Hannigan. "In Phase 2, we installed hardware and the Krang content management platform to relaunch the Web site. We're now in Phase 3, bringing member services, health care and teacher resources online."
UFT chose Red Hat Linux, based on recommendations from both IBM and Plus Three. In contrast, Feedster followed a different path, deploying Novell Inc.'s SuSE Linux on some servers and Gentoo Linux from the Gentoo Foundation Inc. on others.
A startup, Feedster had no legacy systems baggage-a rare luxury. UFT, with all its data residing on the AS/400, wasn't so lucky. IBM, however, offered what Vigilante considered a perfect solution, allowing the AS/400 to stay put while integrating it into the new open-source environment.
IBM's Toolbox for Java and JTOpen is a library of Java classes that can be used by Java applets, servlets and applications to access AS/400 or iSeries server data and resources. The toolbox provided everything that Plus Three and UFT needed to develop communications conduits and file access.
As part of its goal to foster educators' professional development, UFT's educational programs, in affiliation with local colleges and universities, offer a full spectrum of workshops and graduate level courses to some 10,000 members each year. In the third phase of the project, the Web site will be the place where teachers can learn about and register for these courses. And the union's nationally acclaimed Dial-A-Teacher program, in affiliation with the New York City Department of Education, offers homework assistance to more than 60,000 public school students and parents every year. The program uses the Web site as a starting point for matching students' needs with specific teachers; the goal is to make a wide range of content available in as many as 12 languages.
"The Web site averages 30,000 visits per month. But the average visit length went from 30 seconds to 5 minutes," said Stamatis. "Members are downloading materials and even reading online. And now that we post news daily, we've created a compelling reason for teachers to visit and stay."
In addition to being lightyears more efficient than the UFT's previous paper-bound methods, the union's new interactive Web presence also conveys a friendlier persona to the organization's 150,000 members.
"There's no way the president of a union organization of our size can do a traditional reach-out to its dues-paying membership," said Vigilante. "What we've tried to do is design the site and its services to provide an 'electronic handshake' to members. We're there all the time, and we've worked to provide immediate response or have the information they need just a click or two away."
The UFT, it seems, has learned its own lessons.
Plus Three Appoints Sam Tregar as Product Manager
Posted on 02/22/2005 @ 11:28 AM
Plus Three, LP ("Plus Three" or the "Company"), a strategic marketing and technology company serving major U.S. political organizations and non-profit institutions, today announced Sam Tregar has been named Product Manager. In this role, Tregar will be responsible for providing strategic direction and expertise to the development of ARCOS, the company's advanced Open Source technology platform used by political, non-profit and large member organizations. Tregar was the chief architect and developer of the Open Source content-management system Krang, and is a noted industry expert who has been published in trade publications and is the author of the book, "Writing Perl Modules for CPAN" (Apress, 2002).
"Plus Three's innovative work with Open Source and next generation platforms like the contextual Web, really captured my imagination and is my primary reason for joining the company," said Tregar. "I look forward to working with the company's outstanding programming team to show large organizations and companies they no longer have to compromise with proprietary systems that lack the power and flexibility to meet their needs. I am anxious to contribute to the company and ARCOS and expect we will have some exciting updates to announce for the platform soon."
Tregar brings an extensive programming background to Plus Three. Before joining the company, Tregar served as Lead Programmer for Trafficmac Inc., where he was responsible for driving the development of Trafficmac's next generation software and managing a team of programmers. Prior to working with Trafficmac Inc., Tregar was the Lead Programmer at the PIRT Group, a division of Primedia Inc. While at the PIRT group Tregar maintained the Bricolage Open Source content management system and lead the Krang development team. Krang has been a huge success for PIRT, lowering administrative costs and improving the online editorial process at hundreds of magazines.
"Like any company would be, we are excited to be able to add someone with Sam's programming expertise to our team," said Plus Three President Juan Proaño. "We have had tremendous success developing Open Source solutions for our customers, as evidenced by the online fundraising success of our clients in 2004 totaling $185 million dollars. In addition, our work with unions continues to accelerate and Sam's vision and expertise will prove invaluable as we grow our company and service offerings."
The ARCOS software platform is built using Open Source, the world's most flexible and scalable software. Using Open Source provides three key differentiators that the company's clients value above all else — reliability, scalability and security. Open Source is also free from onerous licensing fees, enabling ARCOS users to constantly maximize the value of their investment while substantially reducing the cost of every donation. Built on this industry-leading open source platform is a complete suite of solutions that allow organizations to more effectively communicate with their constituents. The ARCOS platform is easy to integrate into legacy systems providing complete and reliable access to information and applications located on those systems. In addition, the Open Source platform enables unparalleled customization and enhancement.
What Your Party Knows about You
Oct 18, 2004
Howard Dean didn't get it. Al Gore had no clue. The high-tech secret weapon of this election isn't blogging or viral e-mail or any other sexy buzzwords. It's something mundane and under the radar and totally unsexy: data. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have amassed vast secret databases of information about voters, which they jealously guard on the simple theory that the more you know about people, the easier it is to get their vote.
The Republicans began building their database, which they call Voter Vault, back in the mid-1990s. It's no accident they got a head start: Bush adviser Karl Rove used to run a direct-mail company, so he knows the value of a few good leads. "We don't say a lot about Voter Vault," notes Christine Iverson, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. "A lot of the information is strategic, and the less the Democrats know the better." Secret it may be, but Voter Vault caused a stir last month when it emerged that the Republicans had — wait for it — outsourced some of its construction to a bunch of programmers in Maharashtra, India.
By 2001, the Democrats — the party of would-be overnerd Al Gore — were staring at a data gap. All they had was a few tens of thousands of e-mail addresses stored on a computer so obsolete its monitor was green. So they hired a small firm called Plus Three to build them a database of their very own, which they named Demzilla. Voter Vault and Demzilla currently hold about 165 million entries each.
So what's in these things? Any information about you that the parties can legally get their hands on. They start with voter-registration records, which are rich in priceless personal data like phone numbers, home addresses and birthdays. That info gets cross-referenced with census data plus records the parties keep: who worked or volunteered for them, who donated money. Names in Demzilla typically have 200 to 400 pieces of info attached to them.
But the secret sauce for any 21st century political database is email addresses — there's no quicker or cheaper way to get out the vote than by e-communicating directly with supporters. In addition, there may be magazine-subscription records, membership rosters from organizations like the AARP ... who knows? The parties aren't saying. "We probably have more information about the average voter than they care for us to have," admits Robert Bennett, chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio.
The more data the parties have, and the more ways they search, collate, cross-reference and puree them, using data-mining kung fu perfected by generations of direct marketers, the more precisely they can tailor their pitches to individual voters. Undecided black housewives under 35 will get very different phone calls from the Kerry campaign than Hispanic CEOs over 60. Data mining also helps the parties find, and sway, those all-important swing voters. "Now we can identify individuals within a neighborhood, in a state, in a market, where we never would have gone and looked before," says Juan Proaño, president of Plus Three.
So keep a close eye on your candidate, because you can be sure he's keeping an eye on you — and on the competition. "The Democrats have typically not had a very good database," the G.O.P.'s Iverson sniffs. "We're very happy to take all the information they give out about Demzilla and absorb it."
Kerry Campaign Dumps Cash on Web
Oct 5, 2004
The presidential campaigns and the major political parties have mostly ignored online advertising as a way to reach voters in the 2004 election, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That is, until now.
After Thursday night's debate between Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush, the Democratic National Committee bought roughly $400,000 worth of ads on 50 sites, including USA Today, The Washington Post, MSNBC, The New York Times, Salon.com, Weather.com, ESPN.com and Movieline.com. The DNC also bought ads on local news sites. In a few days, it almost doubled its entire online advertising budget for the previous eight months.
And the DNC isn't done. The party plans to have another online media blitz after Tuesday night's debate between the vice presidential candidates, Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney, said Jano Cabrera, the DNC's communications director.
The DNC's web effort last week capitalized on the number of Americans who watched the 90-minute debate between Kerry and Bush. According to Nielsen Media Research, the 90-minute debate drew in more than 62 million viewers. In contrast, only about 24 million tuned in to listen to Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer.
"Viewership for the debate is akin to the finale of Friends, in terms of raw numbers of viewers," said Cabrera. "With that level of interest, we knew that a number of people would rush to the internet to find out more information about John Kerry and George W. Bush and we wanted to have a strong online presence."
Doug Kelly, the DNC's director of technology, put it more bluntly: "The strategy was to stop George W. Bush and the Republicans from stealing the post-debate spin like they did in 2000. They dominated the post-debate spin then and we were not going to let that happen again."
After Al Gore's first debate with Bush, advisers to the Democratic candidate thought he had won. But Gore was considered the loser hours later, due to the perception that his audible sighs made him seem condescending. "The Republicans ran a very good operation in the past," Kelly said. "They pointed out one nugget in Gore's performance and drove the media to that nugget."
This time, the DNC ads, which ran Thursday through Sunday, directed supporters to participate in online polls about the debate, such as those being conducted on the Los Angeles Times' site and on CNN.com, as well as to go to the media contact page on the DNC site. Once there, supporters were told how to write a letter to the editor of their local newspaper or how to call in to a local radio show.
Kelly said the DNC site had so many visitors that it deactivated the visitor log feature. "It takes up so much bandwidth, so we turned it off," he said. Kelly said Kerry's site, JohnKerry.com, had three times the number of visitors the night of the debate that it had the night of his convention speech. Twenty thousand signed up to be volunteers.
The DNC also raised $4 million the day of the debate, said Nancy Eiring, director of the DNC's grass-roots fund-raising efforts. Between 9 p.m. and midnight, she said, the party brought in $10,000 a minute. Eiring added that the DNC ads on national websites had a staggeringly high click-through rate of 5 percent.
Until the debates, neither the parties nor the campaigns used the internet to promote their candidates to any great extent, said Michael Cornfield, a senior research consultant at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the author of the report. Instead, they used the web to raise money, organize volunteers and encourage supporters to register to vote.
"This teaches us that online advertising, like online fund raising, works best if it exploits the moment and takes advantage of a large audience created by other means," Cornfield said. "They use the other media to build an audience for them and then they attempt to convert that interest into an opportunity for persuasion and mobilization."
So far, Cornfield hasn't noticed that the Republican National Committee or the Bush campaign has stepped up their online advertising. Calls to both groups for comment were not returned. But as Election Day nears, Cornfield said he expects both campaigns to buy more online ads. "It's all fast and furious now," he said.
In his report, Cornfield found that from January through August, the parties and the campaigns spent more than $100 on TV ads for every dollar they spent on online ads.
For the first eight months of 2004, the Kerry campaign outspent the Bush campaign by a 3-to-1 margin on online ads, the report said. Kerry's campaign spent $1.3 million, while Bush's laid out $419,000. However, the Republican Party was more lavish with its internet-advertising buys. Through the end of August, the RNC spent $487,000 on online ads compared to the DNC's $257,000.
With its massive online media buy after the first debate, the Democratic Party surpassed the Republicans.
"After the first debate, the ads running on NationalJournal.com, for example, were another way for the Democrats to spread their message that Kerry had won the debates among opinion leaders and decision makers," said Brian Reich, director of Mindshare Interactive Campaigns' Boston operations and editor of Campaign Web Review. "In a close election like we have this year, a slight tactical advantage like this one could shift the balance of the race in the Democrats' direction."
Cornfield was surprised that the presidential campaigns, the parties and advocacy groups didn't have more extensive online ad campaigns, especially since web advertising is becoming increasingly popular. In his report, he wrote that ad spending on the internet is growing faster than in any other media. Online advertising revenue is expected to reach $8 billion by the end of 2004.
"Yet, for all the online experimentation the campaigns have attempted this year, they have not ventured aggressively into online advertising," he wrote. "This is surprising because online ads can reach new, undecided and wavering voters in the demographic and geographic niches where they are thought to reside."
In the last days of the campaign, that's changing. "We will do anything we can to get the grass roots fired up and active," said DNC's Kelly. "We rule out nothing."
Plus Three Brings Premier Voter File System to the Web
Posted on 09/27/2004 @ 10:40 AM
LEVERAGE Enhances Constituent Relationships Through Dynamic Database Functionality and Precision Targeting
Plus Three, LP ("Plus Three" or the "Company"), a strategic marketing and technology agency serving major US political organizations and world-class non-profit institutions, today announced that Blaemire Communications, a leading political data services company, is using the company's technology to develop and manage LEVERAGE, the premier Web-based voter file system. The secure database allows users to enhance their relationships with constituents through precise targeting and communications efforts.
Thirteen states, including Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wyoming are currently running LEVERAGE to drive voter contact and get-out-the-vote efforts. Plus Three has worked with Blaemire to build systems, manage and/or expand LEVERAGE in all of these states. Blaemire also works with progressive organizations who need to mobilize volunteers around the country.
"Organizing an army of volunteers and staffers to ensure each and every one of our constituents is contacted and motivated to vote in November, can be a daunting task," said Dennis L. White, Ohio Democratic Party Chair. "Thankfully, LEVERAGE has greatly simplified the job of creating task lists and efficiently deploying volunteers. In addition, LEVERAGE is easy enough to use that volunteers and staff in the field are able to quickly enter constituent or voter updates back into the LEVERAGE system via remote entry, greatly increasing the effectiveness of all of our voter-drive efforts."
Built by Plus Three, LEVERAGE is an open-source, Web-based voter file system that allows users to interact with state wide data files enhanced with geographic, demographic and electoral information, improving the ability of users to build relationships with constituents. Additional information gathered from offline sources such as canvassing and poll results is easily integrated into LEVERAGE from authorized workstations and remotely via palm pilot synchronizations. To prevent unauthorized viewing of proprietary data, each user of LEVERAGE is assigned a permission level governing to which data that user has access.
"Plus Three's technical know-how and expertise working with large online databases, made up of hundreds of millions of records and billions of actions combined with their experience with political parties and progressive organizations made them the perfect choice to build LEVERAGE," said Robert Blaemire, president and founder of Blaemire Communications. "With LEVERAGE, organizations and state parties are able to combine proven off line techniques with the power and flexibility of the Internet. This combination greatly enhances the effectiveness of any organization to communicate with its constituents and voters in powerful and meaningful ways, and, most importantly, elect candidates to office."
LEVERAGE is a particularly critical system in this election where turnout and voting habits in a few key swing states will likely alter the outcome. LEVERAGE allows users to access and generate queries for highly targeted lists enabling on-the-ground organizers to target specific groups with specific appeals that will enhance the likelihood of them casting a vote. In addition, tools critical to the election process, such as walk lists, call sheets, and mailing lists are easily generated in LEVERAGE while completely preserving voter confidentiality.
Plus Three is the leading provider of online marketing and fundraising services for progressive causes. Since its inception, the Company has been tapped by leading Democratic organization and candidates to support their election efforts with highly targeted online campaigns. Online fundraising took on added significance during the recent Democratic Party primary, as candidates capitalized on the medium to build widespread communities and attract donations. Evidence of the increasing vitality and importance of the Web as a campaign fundraising tool — during the first half of 2004, Plus Three has raised over $80 million online through systems it has developed since the start of 2004 in support of progressive campaigns and causes.
"To prepare for this year's November elections, both parties are focusing their efforts on driving their respective bases to the polls," said Plus Three founder and president, Juan Proaño. "Technology tools, such as LEVERAGE, that increase the effectiveness of constituent communications are relative newcomers to the political process, but have already demonstrated their usefulness in targeting and voter contact. To accomplish this, Plus Three has leveraged our success in creating ARCOS, bringing our expertise in building massively large, scalable, easy-to-use database platforms to the state party level."
About Blaemire Communications
Blaemire Communications has been providing political computer services and voter file products to State Parties, Campaigns and Organizations for over 13 years. The Company combines political expertise with the latest computer technologies to help their clients target and reach the people they need to win campaigns or achieve their organization's goals.