Harper Reed: How big data put Obama back in the White House

According to Harper Reed, Obama’s chief technology officer, it’s not the size of your data – it’s what you do with it that matters.

Barack Obama press conference at the White House, Washington D.C., America - 30 Apr 2013

When Barack Obama was swept back into the White House in November, the victory took pollsters, and even some of the Democrat’s supporters, by surprise.

As polls closed, ballot-watchers had braced themselves for a perilously tight count which could run late into the night.

But for those already exhausted by a bitter, gruelling fight between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, the incumbent’s decisive landslide victory would come as a shock.

This was despite the economy still recovering from recession, a struggle to tackle chronic unemployment rates and the fading of 2008’s “Yes we can” euphoria.

But the most remarkable part of the victory was the role played by metrics. Obama’s campaign relied on a ground-breaking operation of data gathering and analysis.

Obama’s team drew together reams of data looking at potential voters, including social media reactions to the Obama campaign and even a “persuadabality score” tracking a voter’s current opinion and how likely that was to change.

Page 8-9 Harper_Reed,_2009With insights on different demographics and who would be likely to choose Obama, the campaign was then able to precisely target its resources to get people out to vote. This led to a more efficient operation, influencing campaigning even down to the amount of time an activist spent door-knocking.

Harper Reed, who previously worked as chief technical officer (CTO) at Chicago clothing firm and early crowdsourcing success Threadless – and who describes himself as “probably one of the coolest guys ever” – was recruited to oversee the data campaign as CTO for Obama’s election battle.

Speaking to me from Chicago, Reed says his team’s work on data – which began 18 months before the election – is hard to sum up because it was so exhaustive.

“We were doing everything,” he says. “The first thing is that every single bit of the campaign was powered by metrics.

“The first thing that [Obama’s election campaign manager] Jim Messina said to me is if there’s not a metric, it doesn’t exist.

“It’s hard to say what we weren’t doing. The easiest way to look at it is we used a lot of data to figure out where we should put our resources and where to point our volunteers.”

He says this gave Obama’s campaign the edge over the competition at atime when they were using similar amounts of resources. “That’s a huge thing, because a campaign is a game of efficiency and using resources,” he says.

“In the US, you raise the money but we basically both raised the same amount of money. It’s all about using your resources effectively.

“It’s not campaigning for votes. It’s about who can convince their voters
to turn out. It’s about convincing people to show up. That’s really what we did. We looked where to put our people and what was the most effective communication.”

Reed is reluctant to predict how this success may influence future data use in political showdowns – but he thinks campaigners could benefit from looking at the best examples of data use in the business world.

He says: “I don’t like to comment on the future. It [the data work in the Obama campaign] is a very good model if you are running an election from 2012.

“One of the things the campaign did, which campaigns should continue to do over the years, was look at what was best from the private sector.

“We said ‘let’s apply what’s happening in the private sector to this election. How do you look at what they have and apply it to your campaign?’

“And we know a lot of campaigns are very similar to marketing.”

The 2012 campaign is now being heralded as an example of big data, and likely to be cited as future campaigns try to harness the wealth of information available online.

At the same time, it is generating a buzz among businesses.

But despite his praise for the private sector, Reed, whose love of information extends to listing his precise age, weight, the current weather and the last song he listened to on his personal website, thinks businesses need to forget the hype around data and focus on actually using it. “The campaign wasn’t so much big data, which I think is a lot of bulls***,” he says. “What’s important is that we did have a metric.

“When you are metrics-driven, it’s not about big data or small data. It’sjust about data. It was just to make sure it was the most effective campaign possible.

“There’s a lot of people that are excited about using data and say they want to use data, but you see people having a business that then fails to use that data.”

Reed praises some larger companies such as Google for  its work with data. But when it comes to the idea of getting the most out of it, he believes companies are talking about the idea – but not allowing metrics to form a key part of their business.

And he has a stark warning for any firms failing to keep up with the trend – whatever the reason.

Reed thinks a failure to properly use data may come down to old habits.

He says: “If you have been working your whole career and you think you can just get away with doing the same thing you have always done, you need to start looking at how things are going.

“People often times say they have always done it this way. But your competitors are doing it [using data]and eating your lunch.

“I see it already. There’s a lot of talk of Google being metrics-driven. People said it couldn’t work and it seems like it worked.

“I think data’s like oxygen. Every start-up should be a data start-up. I really can’t underscore that more.”