Power to the petabyte: big data wins White House

Obama’s backroom analytics acrobats gave campaign the edge to crack swing states

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Power to the petabyte: big data wins White House The pundit’s instinct is being swept aside in favour of the backroom boffin with a yottabyte database. (Getty Images)
By  Stephen McBride Published  November 11, 2012

As Mitt Romney's camp licked its wounds, packed its wagons and shuffled off into political obscurity last week, post mortems littered the airwaves, newspaper columns and TV studios.

Where did it all go wrong? Was it Romney's inability to project an everyman image? Was it his not-so-secret dismissal of Obama's core demographic as "victims"? Was it his running mate? His social background? His secrecy over his tax returns? Or perhaps his questionable foreign policy credentials?

But rather than something Romney did wrong it could have been something the other guy did right. Barack Obama's political career has been, in a word, unlikely. Much of his 2008 success was forged by putting the "e" in election: using social media and other electronic means to convert strangers into supporters, supporters into voters and undecideds into believers.

Where it almost went wrong was in the number of databases used. This time a new champion charged to the incumbent's aid, with a battle cry that will be familiar to ITP.net readers: big data.

Ensconced in a windowless backroom in Obama's campaign headquarters was his team of data ninjas, performing multiple surveys on cosmic amounts of bytage, referring to projects by military-style code words such as "Narwhal" and "Dreamcatcher".

TIME magazine managed to pry some information from the lips of the information acrobats with the promise it would not be divulged until the winner was declared.

Upon his appointment, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina promised to "measure every single thing" and promptly set about hiring an analytics team five times bigger than the team that had worked on the 2008 campaign. Its chief was Rayid Ghani, who had previously run data mining operations to, among other things, maximise the ROI of supermarket sales promotions.

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