Techies and data crunchers helped Obama to win

Saturday November 17 2012

US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night on November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo/AFP

US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night on November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo/AFP AFP


The US presidential election is over.

While the sweep of this year’s presidential elections was overwhelming in money spent, media attention and commentary, two things played pivotal role in propelling Obama back to the top seat – data and technology.

But it wasn’t just data and technology that secured his victory. It was how they were used.

In this campaign, Obama’s team of data crunchers and technologists laid down the technical foundation for the success of the campaign. In fact, it was over even before it started because the opposing camp laid down a different foundation. A foundation based on an old political blueprint.

Armed with a large staff of programmers and number crunchers, the Obama campaign made a priority of collecting scores of data on its probable voting body to help with targeting, reaching, convincing and converting.

The opinion polls were taken seriously and monitored every day. They provided much needed feedback to help planners re-strategise and re-allocate resources. They collected additional data to supplement the pollsters.

The Obama camp used the data to run a more adaptive, agile and intelligent campaign. They set up a sophisticated feedback system and tested massive amounts of scenarios on potential voters. When they found key messages that worked, they adopted them wholesale into its social media infrastructure.

They used their understanding of the data down to the precinct level, knowing where the votes were, where they could succeed, who they needed to get out to the polls, where to put their resources and as importantly, what was not worth focusing on.

For example, it is reported that in Ohio alone, the campaign had collected and analysed data on 29,000 people enabling them to focus their efforts on the most likely voters and mobilise local workers with specific targeted messages for each door they knocked on.

Coming from huge success of 2008 campaigns, Obama new that social media has good returns in campaigns.

He spent about 10 per cent of his $1 billion advertising budget on digital outreach through Facebook, Google, and Bing, which was considerably higher than Mitt Romney.

Behind the scenes was a team of technologists who learned how to be politicians rather than politicians who needed to learn how to be technologists.

This allowed the campaign to engage in highly targeted outreach and reach people beyond the traditional electorate. Technology doesn’t win political campaigns, but it certainly is a weapon – a force multiplier, in military terms.

Another game-changer is the ability to create sophisticated computer models that use enormous amounts of data to identify the most and least desirable individuals and groups from the standpoint of a particular political campaign strategy.

Reaching people through a variety of digital platforms was a winning strategy – advertising on websites, ads on Google and Bing search engines, email, social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Kenya has nearly 30 million mobile phone subscriptions translating to 75 per cent mobile phone penetration and 7.7 million data subscriptions. There are 14 million internet users, most of who interact regularly via online social venues.

As Kenya’s increasingly young and tech-savvy population are becoming more involved in politics and governance, the role of social media in elections is growing, both as a way of reporting violence and electoral fraud, and of enriching political debate.

For now, some local politicians post updates from their campaign trail, upload YouTube videos and announce their rallies and radio appearances on social media. Some respond to criticisms and talk to their supporters through Google+ Hangouts.

But these are in most cases sporadic and halfhearted. Is there space in Kenya for issues-based, data-driven campaigns anchored on 21st century tools?

Sam Wambugu is a monitoring and evaluation specialist. Email: