by Matt Villano

Republicans’ Web 2.0 Aims: Streaming Convention Video, Online Chats, User-Generated Content

May 28, 20085 mins
Data CenterInternet

Republican Convention CIO Max Everett's plans include technology partnerships with Google, YouTube and Qwest, plus ethical hackers to test his website's security.

John McCain’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president has been locked up for more than two months now. An estimated 45,000 people, including Republican delegates, are making plans to gather in St. Paul, Minn., around Labor Day for the party’s convention. But the technology behind the website for the GOP’s national convention is still taking shape.

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Engineering this technology is a man named Max Everett. Everett is CIO for the Committee on Arrangements, a subset of the Republican National Committee that is activated every four years to plan the convention. His goal for this year’s shindig from Sept. 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center arena: to use technology to make more of the convention appeal to the general voting public.

This objective is something both Republicans and Democrats pursue every four years. While 2004 saw its share of Internet-based advances in fundraising, online community building and e-mail campaigns (see IT on the Campaign Trail and Howard Dean Profits from Web Campaign), this year the parties hope to take things a step further—both to broadcast their messages and make up for the dwindling network television coverage of the events. (Also see The Web 2.0 Campaign for the White House and Election 2008: Technology Issues Will Play a Key Role.)

Live from the Convention Floor

Everett’s plans include tons of Web-based video from the convention floor and other venues, provided by a variety of vendors. The Web strategy also calls for submissions from outside the convention by members of the public, and real-time question-and-answer chat sessions with convention delegates.

“We’ll be using video to provide behind-the-scenes looks at a lot of the things you wouldn’t necessarily hear about in traditional media outlets,” says Everett, who runs an IT staff of roughly 20. “The ideas here are for everyone to see the message of our nominee and for people to become interested and more involved.”

These interactive programs will begin this summer with a number of contests on YouTube, one of the convention partners. Everett says certain details are still sketchy, but that the contests will require participants to submit homemade videos electronically. Everett declined to say what the GOP is spending on its convention website project.

Another effort designed to increase user participation: streaming video during the big event. This technology, hosted by convention partner, will operate from a studio alongside “radio row,” the spot where dozens of radio stations line up to interview delegates during the big show.

Everett says the technology will enable Web viewers at home to ask questions of certain delegates via chat box, and watch the delegates respond to the questions in real-time video.

These plans to use Web-based technologies to engage interested people in a two-way conversation are a step in the right direction, says Stu Trevelyon, president of NGP Software, a Washington, D.C.-based company that produces fundraising software for political candidates. Trevelyon says that surprisingly, many political organizations have been slow to adopt these technologies, even though the groups claim to seek grassroots support.

“These types of interactive technologies are markers of the way user-generated content and voters have found their way into more mass-media outlets over the last few years,” says Trevelyon, who generally works with Democrats and their allies. “It’s nice to see the political world embracing them after all this time.”

However all of this streaming content ends up being used, it’s sure to require some serious bandwidth to broadcast, and Everett says telecommunication vendor (and GOP convention partner) Qwest has promised up to a gigabyte of bandwidth to all points inside the Xcel Energy Center. He adds that the GOP also is working with national wireless providers to bolster cellular service inside the arena.

Big Tent Approach to Platform, Security Concerns

Another issue to consider when pulling all of this technology together: platform. Everett and his Republican colleagues are taking a middle-of-the-road approach, opting for a mix of open source and other platforms.

For Everett, the justification behind this decision is simple: Too much of a good thing probably isn’t as good as one thinks.

“Our focus is really on finding the technology that best fits our need,” he says, noting that Microsoft is another convention partner, so the GOP will be using at least some tools from that vendor. “We’ve found that a blended solution usually is best.”

Another benefit of hybrid platform: security. Security has been one of the biggest challenges for Everett in designing IT for the Republican convention, largely because it’s such a high-profile issue.

On one hand, he says, the party wants to make sure all of the information on the site is secure, and that the site is always online so people can find and use the information therein. On the other hand, the GOP has been very careful about not overdoing it with security—not just locking things up to say the site is safe.

To this point, one solution will be ethical hackers. Everett says he plans to hire a penetration testing team to come in a few weeks before the convention and try to break into the site as an evildoer might. The thinking here is that if the ethical hackers can find vulnerabilities and fix them before hackers find them at all, security breaches can be avoided from the very beginning. “Any time you’re collecting user information, you need to be extra-specially careful with it,” says Everett.