President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign relied on a sophisticated data-analytics platform that allowed organizers and volunteers to precisely target potential donors and voters.
The centerpiece of that effort was Project Narwhal, which brought voter information—steadily accumulated since Obama’s 2008 campaign—onto a single platform accessible to a growing number of campaign-related apps. “Even the voter-protection stuff we did, as the election got closer, was through Narwhal,” Ryan Kolak, lead engineer of Narwhal Integration, explained during a post-election lecture on the campaign’s IT infrastructure. “Because of its size, we had to choose which problems to solve.”
The rival Romney campaign attempted to counter with Orca, a Web-based app that would allow swing-state volunteers to update Romney headquarters in real time on Election Day. In theory, GOP campaign managers armed with that stream of fresh data could precisely target resources in order to get out the vote. But Orca, supported by a single Web server alongside a single application server, melted down in spectacular fashion just when the campaign needed it most.
The GOP has only a few short years to prepare for the next Presidential election cycle, and the party is scrambling to build an analytics system capable of competing against whatever the Democrats deploy onto the field of battle. To that end, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has launched Para Bellum Labs, modeled after a startup, to produce digital platforms for election analytics and voter engagement.
“Para Bellum will allow the RNC to continue building a new tech-centered mindset, while increasing visibility and credibility in the tech community to attract top talent who want to solve big tech problems,” read a note about the project on the RNC’s Website. “Para Bellum will participate in the technical and open source community, starting with a 5-campus tour at top engineering schools and hosting a political hackathon in the future.”
Is this a genuine effort to infuse the GOP’s infrastructure with data science, or merely an attempt to show that the organization hasn’t fallen behind the Democratic Party when it comes to analytics? Certainly the “Welcome to Para Bellum Labs” video posted by the RNC gives the impression of a huge office staffed with data scientists and programmers. However, the creation of a muscular digital ecosystem hinges on far more than building a couple of apps.
For starters, Para Bellum Labs will need a diverse set of employees and volunteers, skilled in everything from predictive analytics to data mining and app-building. The Labs will need to structure those workers into product teams capable of easy communication with one another; Obama’s 2012 campaign, for example, had many of its core technology people sitting so close together, they could literally smack one another on the back of the head when things went wrong. These teams will need to set a rigid release structure as the elections approach in earnest; Obama’s teams worked in weeklong sprints, with a goal of releasing new software every week, and had a “big board” that clearly delineated the various initiatives underway (as well as who was working on what).
Whatever Para Bellum Labs ends up developing, the user interfaces will need to be as simple as possible, so that volunteers and campaign workers without much technological savvy can actually use the tools in the right ways at the right times. It will also need to walk those volunteers and workers through several dry runs of whatever technology they build, in order to avoid an ignoble repeat of Orca, which Romney’s people kept Top Secret until it was far too late to give everyone the necessary run-through of how it worked.
Para Bellum Labs will also need to build its technology with failure in mind, with multi-region redundancy via Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) or similar provider. That won’t prevent something catastrophic, such as multiple payment processors failing simultaneously or fundraising pages locking up at a crucial moment, but it would be leagues beyond what Romney’s campaign constructed behind Orca.
Whatever the GOP rolls out, it’ll face a tough opponent in the Democratic opposition, which will almost certainly emulate the robust IT infrastructure that the Obama campaign instituted in 2012 (not to mention Obama’s massive voter and donor datasets). From that perspective, Para Bellum Labs might face the toughest job in politics.