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Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

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Obama’s campaign tech whiz Harper Reed says Australian parties face different challenges

Published 21 May 2013 00:05, Updated 30 May 2013 00:45

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Obama’s campaign tech whiz Harper Reed says Australian parties face different challenges

The chief technologist for Barack Obama’s re-election, Harper Reed, would find an Australian election campaign “fascinating” because it’s about persuasion rather than getting out the vote. Photo: Sara Mays

Running a data strategy for an Australian election would be a “fascinating” and “fun” task wholly different to a US presidential campaign, according to the chief technologist for Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012.

Harper Reed, who was chief technology officer for the Obama campaign, is visiting Australia for several speaking engagements, including CeBIT Australia in Sydney.

The sophisticated ‘big data’ strategies used by the Democrats are regarded as a major contributor to the fact that Obama raised $US1 billion and ultimately beat Republican candidate Mitt Romney on polling day.

Reed says the differences in the two systems with Australia’s compulsory voting, public campaign financing and preferences would make it a different but interesting challenge.

“If you don’t need to do ‘get out the vote’ you have a fascinatingly different problem set and it’s almost hard for me to imagine what that would be like because we were so focused on it,” Reed says.

“I actually think it would be a fun problem because it’s more about persuasion – it’s not about getting people out to vote, it’s about getting them to vote for you. It’s pretty awesome to think about because it changes how you interact with your constituents and your volunteers – it's almost blowing my mind.”

Driving politics through technology

Reed says he is not doing any consulting for any of the political parties in the upcoming Australian election, adding that he didn’t “really like the world of politics“.

“I helped re-elect the president I supported and now I’m ready for what’s next,” he says.

Since the election, Reed has been working on a Chicago-based start-up company called Luna that builds software for e-commerce companies, and has also parlayed his experience into a busy speaking career that takes him all over North America and Europe and now Australia.

On the Obama campaign, Reed worked alongside Silicon Valley experts such as Teddy Goff and Dan Wagner. As CTO, he directly managed a team of 40 people who built the underlying technology for everything the campaign needed.

This included a database-driven fund-raising app and tools such as Dashboard, an internal social networking platform that operated as a virtual field office for more than half a million volunteers and 5000 staff.

While Australian political parties are looking to borrow techniques for the upcoming federal election, the scale of the operation was well beyond anything ever seen in Australian politics.

Size of operation toughest challenge

In total there were about 300 people in the digital, technology and data analysis teams, working with a single system with merged information from the electoral roll, pollsters, fund-raisers, field workers and consumer databases, as well as social media and mobile contacts. Reed says the experience “taught him more than he could have ever imagined” and biggest challenge was the size of the operation.

The campaign was a huge enterprise but needed to be as fast and flexible as a “scrappy young start-up”.

“At big organisations sometimes things are so slow and it can take months and months to launch a product or develop software,” he says.

“With the campaign it didn’t matter what the reason was or the physics of it, it had to be done and it couldn’t take a long time. We could not act like a big organisation, we had to be fast and we had to execute and if we screwed it up, we would fail.”

To overcome these challenges, Reed hired people who were focused on shipping product, organised them into small groups, and used agile development methodology.

If he had his time over, he would focus on “more aggressively listening” to make sure the technology team was truly building the tools that the users needed rather than “wasting time on silly stuff”.

”Obviously didn’t do too badly but we could’ve done better,” he adds.

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