Proud that people "like us" had a hand in winning President Obama's reelection, the tech blogger world is celebrating the coders and data crunchers of the campaign the only way it knows how: With words. Many, many, many words. Following the Democratic win last week, we have seen many "deep dives" and long features about the nerds who helped get out the right kind of vote to swing the election in Obama's favor. We understand the enthusiasm, tech nerds, but it's a lot. For those who don't have time to sit down and read the many thousands of words dedicated to these good-with-computers guys, we've put together a little reading guide for you. You're welcome.
If You're Into How Things Work ...
Sean Gallagher goes into the technology behind Narwhal, the set of services the tech team built where it could store and develop all the different applications the Obama campaign used to get the right people to vote on election day. This is for the more tech obsessed reader, who wants to know about the computing language, cloud services, and self-made API these geeks used and created.
To pull it off, the Obama team relied almost exclusively on Amazon's cloud computing services for computing and storage power. At its peak, the IT infrastructure for the Obama campaign took up "a significant amount of resources in AWS's Northern Virginia data center," said Ecker. "We actually had to start using beefier servers, because for a period of time we were buying up most of the available smaller Elastic Compute Cloud instance types in the East data center."
Atop Amazon's services, the Obama team built Narwhal—a set of services that acted as an interface to a single shared data store for all of the campaign's applications, making it possible to quickly develop new applications and to integrate existing ones into the campaign's system. Those apps include sophisticated analytics programs like Dreamcatcher, a tool developed to "microtarget" voters based on sentiments within text. And there's Dashboard, the "virtual field office" application that helped volunteers communicate and collaborate.
If You're Into the Humans Behind the Tech ...
This nearly 7,000 word piece has a lot of information, but most compellingly, Alexis Madrigal goes deep on Harper Reed (pictured above), the chief technology officer for the Obama campaign and his relationships within and outside the campaign. This man, as Madrigal describes it, isn't just a nerd. He is king of them.
If you're a nerd, Harper Reed is an easy guy to like. He's brash and funny and smart. He gets you and where you came from. He, too, played with computers when they weren't cool, and learned to code because he just could not help himself. You could call out nouns, phenomena, and he'd be right there with you: BBS, warez, self-organizing systems, Rails, the quantified self, Singularity. He wrote his first programs at age seven, games that his mom typed into their Apple IIC. He, too, has a memory that all nerds share: Late at night, light from a chunky monitor illuminating his face, fingers flying across a keyboard, he figured something out.
TV news segments about cybersecurity might look lifted straight from his memories, but the b-roll they shot of darkened rooms and typing hands could not convey the sense of exhilaration he felt when he built something that works. Harper Reed got the city of Chicago to create an open and real-time feed of its transit data by reverse engineering how they served bus location information. Why? Because it made his wife Hiromi's commute a little easier. Because it was fun to extract the data from the bureaucracy and make it available to anyone who wanted it. Because he is a nerd.
Yet Reed has friends like the manager of the hip-hop club Empire who, when we walk into the place early on the Friday after the election, says, "Let me grab you a shot." Surprisingly, Harper Reed is a chilled vodka kind of guy. Unsurprisingly, Harper Reed read Steven Levy's Hackers as a kid. Surprisingly, the manager, who is tall and handsome with rock-and-roll hair flowing from beneath a red beanie, returns to show Harper photographs of his kids. They've known each other for a long while.
If You Just Want a Primer ...
Steve Lohr gives a very simplified version of what exactly this tech team did and how the apps helped Obama win, giving it more political context than the straight-up tech blogs.
But a real edge for the Obama campaign was in its use of online and mobile technology to support its much-praised ground game, finding potential supporters and urging them to vote, either in person or by phone, according to two senior members of the Obama technology team, Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for the Obama campaign, and Harper Reed, chief technology officer for the Obama campaign.
A program called “Dashboard,” for example, allowed volunteers to join a local field team and get assignments remotely. The Web application — viewable on smartphones or tablets — showed the location of field workers, neighborhoods to be canvassed, and blocks where help was needed. “It allowed people to join a neighborhood team without ever going to a central office,” said Mr. Slaby.
If You Want to Know What Exactly these Tech Nerds Actually Accomplished ...
Read: Time's "Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win"
Michael Scherer goes through specific campaign events and fundraising accomplishments that came out of this data. This is for the reader who cares less about technology and more about its utility.
Data helped drive the campaign’s ad buying too. Rather than rely on outside media consultants to decide where ads should run, Messina based his purchases on the massive internal data sets. “We were able to put our target voters through some really complicated modeling, to say, O.K., if Miami-Dade women under 35 are the targets, [here is] how to reach them,” said one official. As a result, the campaign bought ads to air during unconventional programming, like Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, skirting the traditional route of buying ads next to local news programming. How much more efficient was the Obama campaign of 2012 than 2008 at ad buying? Chicago has a number for that: “On TV we were able to buy 14% more efficiently … to make sure we were talking to our persuadable voters,” the same official said.
The numbers also led the campaign to escort their man down roads not usually taken in the late stages of a presidential campaign. In August, Obama decided to answer questions on the social news website Reddit, which many of the President’s senior aides did not know about. “Why did we put Barack Obama on Reddit?” an official asked rhetorically. “Because a whole bunch of our turnout targets were on Reddit.”
If You Want to Know How Tech has Changed the Political Game ...
Read: Mother Jones's "Under the Hood of Team Obama's Tech Operation"
It's here you realize how different things used to be one short election cycle ago, with Tim Murphy giving us an idea of how this data has changed campaigning practices like canvassing and fund-raising.
Over the last decade, as campaigns acquired more and more data—everything from voters' shopping habits to their caucus attendance record—they ran into a bit of a Babel problem. Their disparate databases were often incompatible, so that an online phone banker, for example, might waste resources by calling a person who'd already told in-person canvassers that he or she had voted early. The solution was a project called Narwhal, managed by Davidsen. Narwhal integrated all of the various data sets—consumer data, voting history, party file, and online profile—so that they could be updated and accessed in real-time. Now if an organizer tapped his tablet in Cuyahoga, it had a ripple effect in Chicago...
What it did was it listened, and it trickled up information," Reed told me. "So like, if you were a volunteer and you knocked on a bunch of doors and you had a particularly bad day, you could say, 'I'm in a very red area, I'm having a particularly bad day specifically on health care.' So that trickles up. And so, at HQ, you're able to say, 'We need to send this person more information, particularly about health care, to arm them, so it can be less depressing.'"
If You Want to Know How the Tech Team Worked with the Rest of the Campaign ...
This is for someone who wants to know how tech fits into the big picture. In this you'll see words like "political strategists" and get to hear from Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina.
Empowering each little neighborhood office was part of the Obama campaign's larger theory about teamwork. "When you're in a big world of a $1 billion campaign, you are in many ways just someone who brings a team together and empowers them," he says. This sounds fuzzy, and so does the goopy word "empowerment," but that's where the data comes in. Data means accountability. "The trick is allowing everyone to feel like they have a piece in building it, but it can't be pie in the sky. You have to have firm metrics that are measurable every day. There's a fine line between allowing people to dream up their campaign and having them be accountable."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.