Obama Data Guru: I’m Not a Sorcerer, I’m You

OFA data director Ethan Roeder. <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-61774852/stock-vector-happy-wizard-waving-and-cape-holding-a-magic-wand.html?src=d9acff62e2bfdd21fd2f506341a28bb1-1-41">HitToon.Com</a>/Shutterstock

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Now that the campaign is finally over the non-disclosure agreements are starting to lapse, Obama campaign veterans are starting to come forward to tell their stories of what worked and what didn’t. (Sometimes in these very pages.) Today, it’s Ethan Roeder’s turn. In a New York Times op-ed, the campaign’s data director says he’s nothing like what you’ve heard:

I’ve grown accustomed to reading inaccurate accounts of my day job. I’m in political data.

If I’m not spying on private citizens through the security cam in the parking garage, I’m probably sifting through their garbage for discarded pages from their diaries or deploying billions of spambots to crack into their e-mail. Reading what others muse about my profession is the opposite of my middle-school experience: people with only superficial information about me make a bunch of assumptions to fill in what’s missing and decide that I’m an all-knowing super-genius.

Sadly for me, this is a bunch of malarkey. You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.

Roeder’s right that OFA wasn’t digging through confidential records or sifting through dumpsters. But that’s also not an allegation I’ve heard anyone make. Nor is it really the case that the campaign was working with the same set of information that’s available to a news outlet or savvy blogger. Detailed donor histories aren’t publicly available. Nor are party files, which included notes on caucusing and volunteering and issue preference. And even the savviest of bloggers don’t purchase bulk consumer databases. The campaigns are doing more or less what big retailers are doing, but in the eyes of privacy watchdogs, that’s kind of the point: As I put it in a piece for the magazine back in September, “In practice, the Obama team isn’t doing anything private companies haven’t already been doing for a few years. But the scope of its operation represents a major shift for politics—voters expect to be able to obsessively analyze information about the candidates, not the other way around.”

There’s a lot more in the Times op-ed, and Roeder does a good job of explaining the campaign’s real breakthrough—figuring out what to do with all of this data to maximize every interaction it had with voters, donors, and volunteers. Go read his whole piece

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