How Technology Won the Presidency, Pt. II

I explained yesterday how the Obama campaign utilized data integration techniques to realize a distinct advantage in targeting voters. However, all that data wouldn’t have meant anything without the technologies to process it and disseminate it. Obama’s team excelled here, too, utilizing the latest technological advances and trends to do on the cheap what, just a few years ago, would have cost beaucoup bucks.

Improvements in hardware helped the team keep costs low. Luke Peterson, data architect for Obama for America, told me his $700 laptop easily handled voter registration data, in fact better than did the $5,000 workstation he used in 2004.  But improved processor performance was aided to some degree by improved software, too. Peterson said the campaign used inexpensive software options — PostgreSQL, MySQL, etc. — where possible, saving budget resources for expensive items like SPSS licenses and an ArcGIS server for the Chicago office.

Increased bandwidth also was a big boon. In 2000, Peterson explained, the Al Gore campaign was using an ISDN that was split 60 ways (I hope he was exaggerating). “If we needed to move a big data set, we’d set it up at 6:00 p.m. and go home … or go work at another computer,” he told me. “Maybe the next morning, if you’re lucky, it went through.” Compare that to the Obama campaign, which had “huge” pipes going into the Chicago office and invested heavily in Internet connections for field offices.

Advances in mobile technology made life easier, as well. By the end of the campaign, Peterson said, the team was running most of its voice communication on cell phones and even VoIP. — the only copper going into the Chicago office was the DSL line. The Chicago office maintained a traditional digital phone service, but many, if not most, of the field offices dumped traditional phone lines for VoIP. The team even built an iPhone app designed to help canvassers do their jobs.

The campaign also used cloud computing tools and a whole lotta SaaS. On the cloud front, Peterson recalled a team of DBAs using EC2 to run a huge PostgreSQL spatial analysis with political shapefiles. SaaS-wise, Peterson cited extensive use of Google Docs and EditGrid. In fact, he told me, the campaign shared more EditGrid spreadsheets than it did Excel spreadsheets, and there was a rumor that Google contacted the Obama campaign’s legal team in South Carolina to say the team had the biggest spreadsheet of any Google Docs user.

And, of course, there was Team Obama’s use of new media. On top of the 5-million-plus friends Obama for America had across the social networking landscape, the campaign also targeted applications and advertising to each particular site. Ads on were different than communications on LinkedIn, for example, and the distinct differences in how people use MySpace vs. Facebook meant different strategies for those two sites.

Facebook was a big part of the campaign for reasons beyond its online reach: Co-founder Chris Hughes was part of the campaign team. In fact, Peterson told me, Hughes’ presence underscored the campaign’s open culture, a characteristic that made possible the testing (and ultimate success) of all these new strategies. In other campaigns, Peterson said, the then-25-year-old Hughes, despite his web mogul status, would have been told to sit down and shut up. In the Obama campaign, though, he “kicked some of the gray-hairs in the ass a little bit,” Peterson said.

Even with all the new techniques employed by Obama’s campaign, I expect those who cut their political teeth with the Obama campaign will hone their methods in the years to come, making 2007-2008 seem like last century just a few election cycles down the road. With the growing legitimacy of cloud computing, the growing prevalence of broadband and the growing reach of social networks, the possibilities for what computing can bring to a campaign seem almost endless.