How Technology Won the Presidency, Part I

Command of the issues, cool confidence and disarming smile aside, Barack Obama might just owe his campaign’s success to his team’s ability to harness the technology at their fingertips. Social networking, broadband and data management all played huge roles in making the Obama campaign the most personalized presidential campaign ever. I learned just how big a role technology played last week, when I sat in on a presentation at the WebTrends Engage conference by Obama data gurus Dan Langer and Luke Peterson. Afterward, I sat down with Peterson, data architect for Obama for America, for more details. Here’s what I found out.

Data drove many decisions for the campaign. The team amassed more than 13 million email addresses and more than 5 million friends across the social networking landscape. Of the roughly $750 million Obama raised, two-thirds of it was donated online. There were field offices across the nation. Data was coming from everywhere — every time someone signed up on Facebook, donated $5 or requested info from my.barackobama.com, the campaign got at least a phone number or an email address.

Corralling the various data was critical, Peterson said during the presentation, as it allowed the campaign to “break down the walls between departments.” In early 2007, when Iowa was the focus, Team Obama built a tool that meshed voter registration data with data collected online to determine the geographic location of voters. This allowed precinct organizers to more fully personalize the experience for voters in their precincts. Instead of generic phone calls asking people to vote for Obama, callers were able offer rides to caucus locations or talk about issues that voters might have raised via a forum post. While all this was going on in Iowa, another web tool was feeding information to volunteers in states with later primaries and caucuses, who built and grew coalitions until the official campaign focused its attention on those states.

The main objective of this data integration strategy was to make the most of resource expenditures. The Obama campaign didn’t want to waste time going through the phonebook cold calling, so it used data mining and integration to figure out “who the cream was on our barrel,” on whom it should unleash its hordes of volunteers. This was the campaign’s single biggest technology-derived success, Peterson told me. It gave the campaign a leg up on the Republican effort, which Peterson thinks lost its analytical edge thanks to “data nerd” Karl Rove’s absence.

The end-result of data integration is creating what Peterson calls “one picture of the truth” across the board, where organizations see all the relevant data for a particular need in one place instead of having the data isolated in their respective departments. Siloing data points decreases efficiency and usefulness. Peterson said corporate America’s bureaucratic structure and cultural resistance to departmental integration slow down data integration projects, even though corporations all strive to make the best use of their data.

As opposed to established corporations with legacy systems and practices, campaigns are like startups: They’re pretty much built from the ground up each election cycle, meaning there are no deeply rooted architectural or cultural obstacles standing in the way of integration. When the Obama 2012 campaign begins to take shape — strategies developed, infrastructure put in place and resources allocated — Peterson hopes 2008 veterans bring the institutional memory to build in data integration from the start.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell the rest of the story — how technological advances ranging from Facebook to mobile processors to cloud computing helped revolutionize the way campaigns are run.

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