Blue Squad Aims to Bring Election Tech Up and Down the Ballot

Xconomy National — 

Austin—All politics is local, the adage goes, and those campaigns are sorely stuck in analog mode.

That’s why Shion Deysarkar co-founded Blue Squad two years ago as a “digital coalition” to support progressive candidates by providing them with greater access to accurate voter data. Now, Blue Squad is more formally launching as a political tech startup aiming to use innovative tools to better connect campaigns with potential voters and volunteers.

“It’s not good that the smaller races don’t have easy access to good technology,” says Desysarkar, who is also the founder of Datafiniti, an Austin data analytics startup. “There are real barriers to them being effective that don’t need to be there.”

In recent election cycles, presidential campaigns of both parties have used technology to better reach voters through social media outreach or targeted e-mails. But those tools haven’t trickled down to races down ballot, such as county commissioners or city councilmembers.

“[That tech] gets lost and it’s up to the next group to rehire a new team and rebuild,” he told Xconomy in a phone interview. “That’s not good for democracy.”

The election of President Trump three years ago has particularly galvanized supporters of progressive candidates in the tech community to put their skills to use in the political sphere. Tech for Campaigns, a 4,500-member national network—web developers, data scientists, and marketers at companies like Google and Netflix, among others—paired its volunteers with Democratic campaigns at the state level and other down-ballot races.

Deysarkar was similarly motivated. “We had decades of experience in tech but none in how it works in the political world,” he says.

In the run up to the 2018 elections, Blue Squad beta tested its “relationships organizing tool” in a few campaigns. The idea is for Blue Squad to help campaigns tap into and leverage the online networks of individual supporters, instead of still relying on traditional block-walking and phone-banking efforts to recruit voters.

Individuals interested in helping a campaign that works with Blue Squad can sign up, giving the startup access to their social media and e-mail contacts. Blue Squad then analyzes those networks in order to suggest who might like to receive political content prepared by a campaign.

“Blue Squad can understand what my network looks like and who wants this communication,” Deysarkar says. “It gives me as someone who may want to help, but not motivated to do the grind of block-walking, a way to be active from the comfort of my home, on the phone.”

One of races Blue Squad worked with was that of Joseph Kopser, an Austin startup founder who ran, and lost, a race for U.S. Congress as a Democrat. “We worked back and forth like any early stage company,” Kopser says. “They were working on building the tools, and we were [providing feedback like], ‘It needs to be more like this.’ ”

To be sure, privacy concerns related to using voters’ social media information have been a top discussion topic since Trump’s victory in 2016, after which it was revealed that Russian attackers used millions of Facebook profiles that had been obtained by a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica. The hackers used that data to target voters with false and divisive ads and messages.

(The Trump campaign has downplayed any role Cambridge played in his victory, and campaign officials have been adamant about how valuable its own Facebook advertising was to its victory.)

Blue Squad only gets users’ data with their permission, Deysarkar says. “A couple of people brought [the Facebook scandal] up, but people are more excited about using their data to help progressives win,” he says. “On top of that, each user always has full control of the data and can remove it any time.”

Deysarkar declined to name campaigns Blue Squad is currently working with.

To kick things off, Blue Squad is hosting an event Friday on the technology of politics, just as Austin welcomes this year’s attendees for South by Southwest, the annual business and media conference. Along with tech leaders like Jeff Reichman (who will talk about effective ways to use public data), individuals such as former Texas Sen. (and gubernatorial candidate) Wendy Davis, the Democratic National Committee’s Kat Atwater, and others are scheduled to represent the political arena.

Kopser, who will speak at the Friday event, is now helping Blue Squad as an advisor. “From my two years on the campaign trail, I saw that the barriers to entry for so many people, that should be running for office, are so high,” he told Xconomy in a phone interview. “The thing that seems so obvious in the tech work, the networking analysis, didn’t exist in the political world.”

Blue Squad has automated what Kopser says his campaign was doing manually by bringing in commercially available off-the-shelf tools and combining them into one software platform. “Using these tools—reducing the time that a candidate is spending in calls with donors, calling people that aren’t even necessarily good targets”—will entice additional qualified people to seek political office, he says.

That includes himself, he adds. “I’m definitely running again; just don’t know when and where,” Koper says. “I’m an entrepreneur; I’m a problem solver. We’re just going to try to fix democracy.”