Machine politics

The brains behind the operation.
Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe

The inner technological workings of the Obama for America (OFA) campaign engine came into the spotlight Jan. 10 when the POTUS’ technology team, dutifully trashing any pretense of a dress code in blue jeans and hoodies, delivered a panel talk at the Hyatt Regency. They explained what it was like to be the brains behind the campaign software capable of blasting those irksome fundraising pitches out to about 60 million Americans in one go. Not surprisingly, some of the geeks who pitched in on the OFA effort hailed from San Francisco; a tech field office was also set up in the city.

In an app-tacular account of what happens when the Bay Area tech universe collides with the famously sleazy realm of national-level politics, they recounted how, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, OFA vacuumed up “like $2 million an hour” in donations immediately after the president descended offstage. They described crash-test drills, pushing 180 terabytes of traffic, running 200 apps, and how the interns from Yale who "showed up in seersucker suits in the middle of summer" were way better dressed than they were. The first hires on the tech team apparently received winning endorsements not only from Dems connected with Rahm Emanuel's transition team, but from some "former Blackwater guy" ideologically aligned with the right wing.

The most interesting details shared by Obama’s brainy hired guns of tech, however, pertained to the granular level of detail accessible to them about individual voters. The Narwhal project, a tech initiative launched under Obama’s reelection campaign, attracted a lot of attention last year due to its very high creep-factor: The ability to integrate every publicly available fact about individual voters into one place so as to facilitate extremely narrow campaign targeting. (Or, as one OFA teach team member put it, “to see you as a person.”) An article that ran in Slate last year described how this works:

Obama’s team is working to link once completely separate repositories of information so that every fact gathered about a voter is available to every arm of the campaign. Such information-sharing would allow the person who crafts a provocative email about contraception to send it only to women with whom canvassers have personally discussed reproductive views or whom data-mining targeters have pinpointed as likely to be friendly to Obama’s views on the issue.

“We would look at your social graph and ask you to ask three of your friends to register,” explained Director of User Experience Jason Kunesh. Other tools employed by the OFA tech team were able to monitor voter turnout and contact those who hadn’t yet gone out to the polls. This included something that could automatically issue direct messages from the POTUS’ very own Twitter account. “It was funny to see people’s reactions on the Internet,” Narwhal team lead Ryan Kolak said, “when they saw that they got a direct message from the President.”