The Obama Campaign’s Technology Is a Force Multiplier

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Obama Campaign’s Technology Is a Force Multiplier

Technology doesn’t win political campaigns, but it certainly is a weapon — a force multiplier, in military terms.

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President Barack Obama visits with volunteers in the call center of a Columbus, Ohio, campaign office Monday. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Both sides in the presidential contest mined click-stream data as never before to target messages to potential voters. 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.

Another ground-game program was a tool for telephone canvassing from people’s homes instead of having to travel to a campaign office and work from a telephone bank. The call tool was a Web program that let people sign up to make calls and receive a list of phone numbers, names and a script to use, noted Mr. Reed.

Often, the profiles of volunteer callers and the lists they received were matched. So the callers were people with similar life experiences to those being called, and thus more likely to be persuasive. Here is a YouTube video of a 91-year-old World War II veteran, who joined the Obama phone corps.


In 2008, there were some remote callers in the Obama campaign. But this year, there were ten times as many, Mr. Slaby said.

The sheer scale of the online outreach and data collection dwarfed the effort four years ago. For example, the Barack Obama Facebook site had 33 million “likes,” compared with 2 million for the previous campaign. A Facebook like, Mr. Slaby noted, is the “just the first rung on a ladder of engagement” but it is a starting point.

Another truly important change was in the technology itself. “Cloud computing barely existed in 2008,” Mr. Slaby said.

This time, the Obama campaign’s data center was mainly Amazon Web Services, the leading supplier of cloud services. The campaign’s engineers built about 200 different programs that ran on the Amazon service including Dashboard, the remote calling tool, the campaign Web site, donation processing and data analytics applications.

Using mainly open-source software and the Amazon service, the Obama campaign could inexpensively write and tailor its own programs instead of using off-the-shelf commercial software.

“It let us attack and engineer our own approach to problems, and build solutions for an environment that moves so rapidly you can’t plan,” Mr. Slaby said. “It made a huge difference this time.”