How Blist Got Involved with Obama—the Inside Story

A Seattle startup is playing an important role in helping President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team get organized. As of yesterday, the Obama-Biden Transition Project has been using technology from Blist (pronounced as one syllable, and spelled with a lowercase “b” by its employees) to power its Change.gov website. The company’s software lets people create, manage, and publish large, interactive lists and databases—similar to working with a simple spreadsheet, but shareable across the Web.

It’s all part of Obama’s pledge to run an open and transparent White House transition, in part by releasing the names of all its donors on a monthly basis. In his company blog, Blist’s founder and CEO Kevin Merritt says he is “really excited” about the exposure and about what his software can do for Obama’s team. “They are using blist in a simple but useful way,” he says.

Go to the Change.gov site, and you’ll see a Blist widget replacing the plain HTML table of the past two months. The widget lets you sort the donor table by column, such as by city or amount. It also lets you search for things like names and employers. (Out of 53,853 donors, I counted 43 from Microsoft versus two from Amazon, for instance.)

This afternoon, I heard from Jon Byrum, Blist’s senior product manager, about how the collaboration with Obama’s team originally came about, and what it means to Blist. “Last Wednesday—on New Year’s Eve—a member from the Change.gov New Media team contacted us about using a blist Widget to post the Obama campaign donor list,” said Byrum in an e-mail. “He let us know that he was planning to post a press release and web page on January 5th, and wanted to ensure that our servers would be able to handle the load. When we asked how he got started with blist, he said the Change.gov team found us through Google and had a large data set. He imported the donor list into blist and commented to a number of us that he was impressed that blist just works!”

But it was a technical challenge. “This campaign donor blist contains more than 50,000 rows, so the blist team was excited to not only be integrated in the Change.gov website, but also to see our application and blist Widget under serious size and traffic load,” Byrum says. “Our engineering team tests simulating large spikes of traffic, but it’s always an exciting and educational experience when the load is ‘in the wild.’ When the donor list was cross-posted on the Huffington.com site, we had a 10 or 15-minute window when the widget loaded slowly for some visitors. Motivated by the challenge, our engineers quickly spotted the issue and resolved it.”

Byrum adds, “The traffic to the blist Widget was unlike anything we had seen before. On [January 5th], the Change.gov widget alone was viewed nearly 9 times the average widget views per day across ALL of our customers’ widgets. It also received a global audience, with viewers from locations including India, Austria, and Nigeria…We are honored to be a part of the Change.gov site and it’s been quite an exciting experience here at blist headquarters in Seattle. We’ve been manning the phones and emails, and monitoring servers to handle the online traffic and increased interest in blist. Our customer service email was triple its normal volume yesterday.”

So what does it all mean? “The team from Change.gov has been a pleasure to work with, and we think it’s progressive for them to choose a Web 2.0 service—especially from a startup—to host and serve this information,” says Byrum. “Throughout the campaign trail the Obama team talked extensively about connecting with the country directly and using Web 2.0 as a vehicle to make that connection. Blist aligns well with their goals: we make it really easy for customers to upload their information and share it with others. Now that the Change.gov team has created a public donor blist, the community can create custom filters and widgets on the data, analyzing and sharing the data in interesting ways.”

Last February, Blist raised $6.5 million from Frazier Technology Ventures and Morgenthaler Ventures. Since then, the startup has been heads-down, focusing on its product and customers. Now that the President-elect himself is demonstrating there are more reasons to share data online, Blist’s effort may well pay off.

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