Inside the Obama Campaign's Hard Drive
Obama's tech guru and his microtargeting whiz kids are building a new kind of Chicago machine. Can they help the president hold on to the Oval Office?
DURING THE 736 DAYS beginning May 9, 2010, Harper Reed walked an average of 8,513 steps, reaching a high mark of 26,141 on September 13, 2010, and a low of 110 on April 21 of this year. (His excuse: broken pedometer.) On that day, Reed, age 34.33 as of this writing, sent one tweet, 55 below his average. Reed was traveling from Chicago to Colorado, where he grew up, where he has spent 39.5 percent of his time away from home since 2002, and where, in 1990, he attended his first concert (David Bowie, McNichols Arena, row HH, seat 8). He has read 558 books in three years—roughly 1,350 pages per week at a cost of 4 cents per page. On May 11, 2011, he slept 14.8 hours before waking up at precisely 2:47 p.m. It was a personal best.
On his site, where he describes himself as "pretty awesome," Reed painstakingly tabulates everything from his weight to his exact location. A certifiable hipster with gauged earlobes and an occasionally waxed handlebar mustache that complements his roosterlike crest of red hair, Reed is a veteran of the professional yo-yo circuit, a devotee of death metal, and a cofounder of Jugglers Against Homophobia. As chief technology officer for President Obama's reelection effort—responsible for building the apps and databases that will power the campaign's outreach—he and his team of geeks could provide the edge in a race that's expected to be decided by the narrowest of margins.
Over the last year and a half at the campaign's Chicago headquarters, a team of almost 100 data scientists, developers, engineers, analysts, and old-school hackers have been transforming the way politicians acquire data—and what they do with it. They're building a new kind of Chicago machine, one aimed at processing unprecedented amounts of information and leveraging it to generate money, volunteers, and, ultimately, votes.
Reed describes his campaign role as making sure technology is a "force multiplier." And that's about as much as he'll say on the matter. The campaign declined to make Reed available for an interview, or to offer anyone who could so much as comment on the complexity of Reed's mustache. "Unfortunately, we do not discuss anything that has to do with our digital strategy," says spokeswoman Katie Hogan. Much of Reed's work now is so under wraps that it's literally code word classified—Obama for America (OFA) uses terms like "Narwhal" and "Dreamcatcher" to describe its high-tech ops. So in the spirit of the sweeping data-mining operation he helped build, I set out to learn as much as I could from Reed's online footprint.
IN APRIL 2011, Reed arrived on the sixth floor of 130 East Randolph Street, the nerve center of the Obama campaign, by way of Chicago's hacker circuit, where he was, by all accounts, a big fucking deal. After studying philosophy and computer science at Iowa's Cornell College, he moved to the Windy City in 2001 and began spearheading dozens of digital projects of varying degrees of seriousness. WeOwntheSun.com, produced with two other future Obama hires, invited visitors to purchase plots of land on the surface of the sun (a steal at $4.95 per square kilometer). Eventually, he ended up at the online T-shirt retailer Threadless. It was there, in a converted Ravenswood Avenue print shop cluttered with go-karts, taxidermy, video games, and a full-size Airstream camper, that Reed, who rose to become the company's chief technology officer, displayed the talents the campaign would later find so valuable.
Threadless wasn't the first company to market arty apparel to the Wicker Park set, but its genius lay in its model. Its website functions as a sort of community center, inviting users to submit T-shirt concepts and vote on their favorites. Out of more than a thousand entries each week, a handful are selected. It's almost impossible for a new T-shirt to flop because the target audience already has declared it a hit.
With Reed's help, Threadless built a mini social network and seeded it with just enough incentives to boost its bottom line. Customers are advised on the precise number of shirts left in stock, prompting impulse buys. Profiles display a user's level of involvement in real time. (Reed, for example, "has scored 281 submissions, giving an average score of 3.22, helping 10 designs get printed.") The brilliance of Threadless is that it turned customers into workers, and the work itself into a game.
"Before Threadless, I loved users but didn't trust them," Reed told an interviewer in 2009, as he was leaving the company. But now he had no doubt: "Users are king."
That faith in the power of crowdsourcing informed his other ventures. In 2008, Reed hacked the Chicago Transit Authority's bus tracker app and made its information public. He also began looking for interesting ways to use it. Although he felt the system—for all its creaky "urine-soaked" cars—by and large worked, he wanted to understand what happened when it failed. Reed used the CTA's data to track every incident, be it a downed power line or a deer on the tracks, and identify trends. Each day's incidents were scored according to severity (low: 4; high: 90; average: 26). Freeing the data earned him an award from the city and face time with the agency. Another tool, a site called CityPayments.org that aggregated information on government contracts in Chicago, led to an official commendation from the White House.
Yet aside from volunteering briefly for the Obama campaign in 2008, Reed had shown little interest in political work. His plan post-Threadless was to take some time to experiment, immerse himself in cloud computing (he's taken to calling himself a "nepholologist"—a mashup of the term for atmospheric analysts and LOL), and work with other startups. Then Michael Slaby, a veteran of the 2008 campaign who had been appointed chief integration and innovation officer, came calling.
When Reed joined OFA, he didn't just bring his own expertise; he got the band back together. The campaign counts at least five Threadless alums among its Chicago tech staff, including Scott VanDenPlas, a self-described futurist who runs the campaign's development operations (a hybrid of programming and IT), and Dylan Richard, the campaign's director of engineering. A sixth Threadless colleague was invited to design the campaign's online store, which borrows the layout and some of the crowdsourcing ethos from the company.
Reed's mission is simple but ambitious: Assemble a data-mining infrastructure that allows the campaign to determine which voters to target and how to do it on a scale and scope that's never been seen before. It's part of a new, data-driven shift in the way campaigns are run. Think of it as the smart campaign.
THE USE OF DATA mining as a political tool traces its origins, at least in spirit, to 1897, when, in the aftermath of William Jennings Bryan's first failed run for the White House, his wife, Mary, and brother, Charles, combed through letters from supporters for relevant personal information. They built a database of 200,000 index cards tracking things like a person's religion, income, party affiliation, and occupation. It became the basis for the perennial candidate's lucrative—although never victorious—direct-mail operation. Knowing your audience is at the heart of politics, but in the last decade, this precept has taken on a new dimension.