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Political Conservatives Stage App-Building Competition


It's no great secret that Republicans are behind in applying digital technology to politics. They admitted as much after the last presidential election. And in an effort to catch up, over the weekend, political conservatives staged an event called the Liberty Hackathon in San Francisco. The sponsor of the app building competition was the Charles Koch Institute, named for its benefactor the billionaire backer of the Tea Party Movement.

NPR's Nathan Rott went to the event and sent us this report.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Silicon Valley is all about challenges, about finding quick answers to tough problems. So how 'bout this: Quick, you have 24 hours to develop an app, anything from widget to Web site that promotes the idea of liberty. No other rules, no other directions, just liberty. Using...

AARON GINN: The data politicians and campaign managers look at. The same data they see every single day.

ROTT: That's Aaron Ginn. He's one of the Liberty Hackathon's organizers.

GINN: We're giving that to Silicon Valley engineers and saying, hey, how would you spread the message of immigration reform or, you know, protecting your information from the NSA?

ROTT: Ginn is a Republican. He worked on the Romney campaign's digital team in the last election. But that's not a good pick-up line in this part of the country. In fact, we had to meet at a park, outside of his office at a tech company, because some of his co-workers didn't want their workplace to even be quasi-associated with a conservative event. That's how poisonous the word conservative - or even something as generic as liberty - can be around here. Which Ginn says shouldn't be the case.

GINN: Because the startup community is a community that believes in economic liberty; that markets and startup and companies can solve our biggest problems.

ROTT: So it's not that far a leap, Ginn says, to think that some of this area's technologists could don a conservative cap. They just need a place to feel comfortable doing it.

CHAD BARTH: On the right there's not always that inherent, I know where to go to get involved. And that's what, like, one of the things that we're trying to change.

ROTT: Chad Barth worked on political campaigns for the RNC for 13 years. He now works for Eventbrite. He says that the left has embraced field training, things like hackathon to recruit technologists, while the right has lagged. That's why he volunteered to judge at this hackathon. It's a step in the right direction, he says, even if it's a subtle one.

MICHAEL REVELL: I didn't even know this was a political hackathon.

ROTT: Michael Revell was one of the 80-some participants at the event. And he wasn't alone in not knowing that it had political backing, though he really didn't mind. Nobody pushed it on him, he says.

The night before, the RNC's newly hired chief technician - who's a former managing engineer at Facebook - was there, he didn't speak or hand out cards. The coaches were non-partisan. The judges were split between liberal and conservative. There was even a team that had a presenter wearing an Ayn Rand "Atlas Shrugged" shirt and another member sporting an Obama pin.

Nothing about the event even smelled of partisanship, says Jeff Karl. He was another one of the participants. And that's how it should be, he says. People don't come to these events because they're concerned about politics.

JEFF KARL: People out here are more just concerned with making things happen, just like making cool things.

ROTT: Things like the app he was developing, a way to make legislation more accessible and understandable by cutting out legal jargon and personalizing it. Or one that was being built just down the hall: A tool to cut down racial profiling by making a type of Yelp for cops. The winner was an app that made it possible for people to vote online. Not very political, which is how Aaron Ginn wanted it - not blue, not red...

GINN: There can be a purple. There can be things where you can say, yeah , we should probably fix that. You know?

ROTT: And that's something that everyone can agree on.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, San Francisco.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.

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