Obama’s campaign technology: how big data analytics won the race to the White House

What ultimately secured the American election victory for Barak Obama? Well, it appears that the success could be put down to the clever and skilful utilisation of big data analytics. Analysts are now convinced that the use of advanced analytics has raised the bar for all future campaigns, and that potential candidates will no longer be able to rely on the old staples of instinct, experience and the interpretation of everyday polls. They will instead have to use an Obama-type strategy using data-driven campaigning which utilises a multitude of tools and analytical models to better understand the voting populace.  In short they’ll have to rely on big data.

That fact alone might be sufficient to put off some of the potential candidates. No doubt they’ll be frightened by the huge potential costs that they might possibly incur. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that the analytical tools used by the Obama campaign were not that different than those most medium sized businesses could lay their hands on. The analytical architecture, dubbed Narwhal, was certainly not what you would describe as exotic. According to an Ars Technica article, Obama’s technology team simply used the cloud, Amazon Web Service, and open source software. Then, according to the New York Times, roughly 200 applications were written, including the data analytics programs.

So what lessons can medium sized companies learn from this? Well, for any business evaluating its big data analytics needs the Obama campaign demonstrates that it is possible to respond to the challenges of getting useful information out of big data and develop complex analytical systems in a relatively short amount of time. Although the 2008 campaign saw Obama successfully gain the Presidency, his officials recognised that the campaign had suffered because the campaign team lacked its own internal IT. Each regional campaign office built their own analytical tools and none shared this information with any other. However, for the 2012 election campaign the Obama team realised that it had to build a common system of scalable analytics tools.

The Obama technology team built Narwhal using services oriented architecture (SOA) principles. An application programming interface (API) allowed the various applications to be built using different languages but still have the ability to share information across a common data store. Another interesting aspect of the technology used by the Obama team is that of internal social networking. Some of the applications developed and utilised were used because of the applications’ social networking capability, allowing volunteers to connect, share their experiences, and build business relationships.

The presidential election campaign clearly demonstrated that is possible to develop scalable data analytics solutions efficiently, and use these to assimilate and understand vast amounts of data quickly and effectively. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, in spite of the apparent disbelief of some political pundits, the Obama analysts in Chicago “were watching state after state fall exactly as they had predicted.” Perhaps, the biggest lesson to be gleaned from this election is that IT can truly design, plan, build a system of systems and adapt, even with a finite project deadline, so long as the architecture is well thought out and firmly established at the outset.