THE BACK PAGE: Analytics, for the win
December 11, 2012
For all but the most politically addicted, the best thing that can be said about the 2012 presidential election is that it’s over. One of the most interesting things that can be said about it, from a business perspective at least, is the candidate that had the time and the know-how to build the better technology strategy won.
Freed from the primary process which had Mitt Romney playing operational catch-up right up to Election Day, and drawing from the lessons of the 2008 campaign, which was drowning in disparate databases, the Obama campaign invested $100 million in technology supported by a team of highly qualified people. When the political pros caught wind of it, they were skeptical. Take conservative pundit Peggy Noonan:
“The other day a Republican political veteran forwarded me a hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. It read like politics as done by Martians. The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’
This wasn’t the passionate, take-no-prisoners Clinton War Room of ‘92, it was high-tech and bloodless. Is that what politics is now?”
As it turns out, it’s a lot of what politics is now. And pundits are becoming an endangered species.
Mind you, just as in business, a good IT strategy will be undermined in a heartbeat by a flawed product. When your candidate snoozes through a debate in front of 70 million people and gets carved up by his opponent in the process, all the analytics in the world won’t prevent your prospects for success from taking a hit. But, all other things being reasonably equal, your chances for success increase when you have an edge in information.
Going through some of the things that the Obama campaign did, you can see the relevance for gaming operators, or any large-scale enterprise that endeavors to translate massive amounts of consumer information into actionable business strategies. For instance, the 2008 campaign had too many databases. Volunteers and the campaign office used different lists. Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists, and none of these lists talked to each other. Some 13 million people had registered for online updates, but there was no demographic data attached to them, making targeted messaging impossible. The campaign sought to resolve these issues by spending 18 months prior to the presidential run on “Project Narwhal,” an effort to create a single megafile that it could merge with data and intelligence collected from internal and external sources.
“The new megafile didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals,” reported Time magazine’s Swampland blog. “Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first.” Each night, the campaign’s analytics team would run 66,000 simulations of the vote in swing states, and the information coming out of those simulations would determine how and where it would spend money.
Digging a little deeper into the technology, Amazon’s cloud computing services were used to support Narwhal, which the IT journal Ars Technica described as “a set of services that acted as an interface to a single shared data store for all of the campaign’s applications, making it possible to quickly develop new applications and to integrate existing ones into the campaign’s system.” Those apps include sophisticated analytics programs that targeted voters based on sentiments within text and a “virtual field office” application that helped volunteers communicate and collaborate.
“Being able to decouple all the apps from each other [by using Narwhal] has such power,” Harper Reed, the chief technology officer for the Obama campaign, told Ars. “It allowed us to scale each app individually and to share a lot of data between the apps, and it really saved us a lot of time.”
By Nov. 6, both sides were confident of victory, and each could point to public polling that supported their view. As it turned out, the Obama campaign was operating on better information and had a much clearer idea who was buying its product. Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina told BuzzFeed Politics that its computer models ultimately predicted Florida results within 0.2%, and Ohio within 0.4%.
Looking back, Messina said something else that applies to more than just politics.
“We demanded data on everything, we measured everything,” he said. “And we put an analytics team inside of us to study us the entire time to make sure we were being smart about things.”