Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Interview with Political Data, Inc.

I was in LA the other day, so I stopped by the offices of Political Data, Inc. (PDI) to say hello. Gary Brown, their Vice President, and Lindsay Hopkins, their Director of Software, were kind enough to let me interview them about PDI. Here's what we talked about.

Michael: PDI is the biggest vendor of political data in California. Can you tell me about the history of the company?

Gary: Jim Hayes started PDI in 1987 and revolutionized how political data vendors work. Before PDI, you would go to a data company and say "I'm running in the 26th Congressional district", and they'd go to the county, get the voter file and the vote history, and compile a database for you. Jim said, I'm going to build the whole state file, so that when somebody calls, it will be ready.

Michael: It's amazing - we take that for granted now.

Lindsay: Today, somebody can place an order, and it will be ready in 10 seconds. The thing that takes the most time is dealing with the client's paperwork. It takes more time to create a password for our Online Campaign Center than it does to get the data. That's the thing that Jim revolutionized.

Michael: Gary, you've been with PDI quite a while. How have things changed since when you started?

Gary: I joined PDI in 1995. Pretty much everything has changed since then! Those days, data was on paper - we'd print millions of paper labels, mail people their voter files, and all communication was by fax. Information was stored on reel to reel tapes. In the 80s, movie studios weren't doing well, and went to local businesses in Burbank offering time-sharing on their mainframes. We were on Warner Brother's lot, in two old trailers that used to be dressing rooms for movie stars. We'd crunch data on their mainframes, and then ship boxes of paper lists and labels from the airport nearby. We still have a $50,000 printer that we can't even give away now.

Lindsay: These days, we're moving everything online with our Online Campaign Center. People are asking more and more for tools that enable them to help themselves.

Michael: I love that philosophy - with Impact Dialing, we really focus on self-service.

Gary: We're getting ready to release the next version of the Online Campaign Center. A lot of other companies built voter file software in the mid-2000s, and we're excited that we're the first company to be building the 2nd-generation version of our product. That's the nice thing about being a smaller company - we can turn on a dime and use new technologies that weren't available before. The key thing about our software is that we're first and foremost a data vendor: we know exactly how our data is supposed to be used, and our software is basically just a delivery mechanism for that data. And the great thing is, when we update our files, everybody using the Online Campaign Center instantly gets the new data. You don't even have to think about file updates - it's just part of the product.

Michael: Nice. Tell me a little more about your data.

Lindsay: A big challenge is to get people to think about the value and importance of good data. It's so important to know that you're getting good addresses, the correct precincts, accurate polling place data, and so on.

Gary: In the last 45 days of an election, we're doing about 200 different county file updates, 500 absentee data updates, and putting in polling places. There are 58 counties, and once absentee ballots are out, most update their files to report who has voted 3 days a week, and some as much as 5 days a week. People ask when they'll be able to get absentee data, and the answer is always that we have it available 10 minutes after we get it. Getting all of this data requires so much coordination, I still can't believe that we're able to pull it off.

Lindsay: Some campaigns go to the county and buy the voter file directly, but then they realize there are so many things they don't know about how to update the addresses and phone numbers, where to get polling place data, how to find out who has already voted absentee, or how to manage a database for all of the records. We have 14 people who are California voter file experts - that's all they do. We want to make things as easy as possible for our clients so that they can focus on the hard work of talking to voters.

Michael: Can you share a story about a campaign that used your data effectively?

Gary: A few years ago, a campaign in a heavily Vietnamese area felt like they weren't reaching everybody, and asked us to get cell phone numbers. At first, I was skeptical, but we got the numbers, and I was really surprised how effective it was. A lot of Vietnamese families in this area ran small businesses, and if you called their landlines, you'd never reach them - they were always at work the times that we typically call people. Now, we offer wireless numbers standard, because you can reach so many younger voters and non-white voters who you can't reach any other way.

Michael: Thanks for sharing the story of PDI. It's exciting to see where you folks are going.