The tech team behind the 2012 Obama campaign has probably received more attention than any political programmers in history. A so-called "dream team of engineers from Facebook, Google and Twitter [who] built the software that drove Barack Obama’s reelection" were extolled in the press for bringing Silicon Valley strategies like Agile development to the normally hidebound process of a political campaign. In the post mortems that followed Obama’s victory, many credited the superiority of the Democrats’ tech team and its famous Narwhal platform, in contrast to the failure of Mitt Romney’s digital efforts, with mobilizing the vote and winning crucial swing states.
But in the aftermath of the election, a stark divide has emerged between political operatives and the techies who worked side-by-side. At issue is the code created during the Obama for America (OFA) 2012 campaign: the digital architecture behind the campaign’s website, its system for collecting donations, its email operation, and its mobile app. When the campaign ended, these programmers wanted to put their work back into the coding community for other developers to study and improve upon. Politicians in the Democratic party felt otherwise, arguing that sharing the tech would give away a key advantage to the Republicans. Three months after the election, the data and software is still tightly controlled by the president and his campaign staff, with the fate of the code still largely undecided. It’s a choice the OFA developers warn could not only squander the digital advantage the Democrats now hold, but also severely impact their ability to recruit top tech talent in the future.
"The software itself, much of it will be mothballed," believes Daniel Ryan, who worked as a director of front-end engineering at OFA. To the techies who supported the campaign, this would be a travesty. The historic work the campaign was able to achieve in such a short time was made possible, Ryan and others argue, because the Obama tech team built on top of open source code — code that has been shared publicly and can be "forked," essentially edited, by anyone. "The things we built off of open source should go back to the public," says Manik Rathee, who worked as a user experience engineer with OFA. The team relied on open source frameworks like Rails, Flask, Jekyll and Django. "We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did in one year if we hadn’t been working off open source projects," says Rathee.
"I understand the need to keep the data sets private, but not the codebase."
In this sense, the decision to mothball the tech would be a violation of the developers’ ethical principles. But the argument is about more than whether putting the tech back in the hands of the public is the right thing to do. "The biggest issue we saw with all of the commercial election software we used was that it’s only updated every four years," says Ryan. It was these outdated options that convinced team Obama to build all the campaign tech in-house. If the code OFA built was put on ice at the DNC until 2016, it would become effectively worthless. "None of that will be useful in four years, technology moves too fast," said Ryan. "But if our work was open and people were forking it and improving it all the time, then it keeps up with changes as we go."
One argument made by the DNC against making OFA's code open-source is privacy. The campaign collected millions of names, addresses, credit card numbers and, of course, political affiliations. But Rathee says the tech was developed with this in mind. "I understand the need to keep the data sets private, but not the codebase. The work was meant to be modular, so it could go from site to site and be applied to different campaigns without sharing sensitive information."
Members of the tech team suspect that the real rationale for keeping the code private is much less high-minded. "The gist of it is, they're concerned that with the superior funding of the Republicans, if they had our software, they'd be unstoppable," says Ryan.
OFA's top engineers believe that keeping the code base private would actually do more harm than good to Democrats. "It’s going to send a very bad signal to engineers who might consider working on the next election cycle in 2016," says Rathee. "It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how we work."
Several OFA engineers believe their work can do a lot of good before the next presidential election. "It's not just a negative impact on recruiting for the next presidential campaign," says Ryan. "It's the question of what could this software do in the hands of other progressive organizations in the next four years."
"It's the question of what could this software do in the hands of other progressive organizations in the next four years."
DNC tech veterans Jim Pugh and Nathan Woodhull believe that what happens to the data, code, and processes developed during the campaign is the biggest question facing the progressive moment today. "Election Day shouldn't be the end for these systems. We need to keep moving forward, continue the investment, and make them available to the whole movement," they wrote in a recent editorial.
"Right now, no one else in politics has tech this good," says Pugh. "So ideally these tools could be offered via a paid license, and end up being revenue positive for OFA or the DNC."
A DNC official responded to The Verge with the following comment. "OFA is still working out the future of their tech and data infrastructure so any speculation at this time is premature and uninformed."
Woodhull and Pugh agree nothing is set in stone, but they are not encouraged. "I haven't heard definitively that the DNC is going to mothball the technology, just that they haven't yet moved forward with maintaining it," said Pugh. "I think that's a major missed opportunity, since there's so much that could be done with it in the next few years. It also means that we're giving Republicans a big chance to catch up with us, in an area that we've had a sizable advantage in since 2008."
Woodhull says the DNC has actually been moving in the wrong direction. "I'm not sure that we know for sure exactly what will happen, but the signs so far have been discouraging," he said. One consequence of mothballing the code is the possibility that the party could lose the technology staff it already has. "There has not been any concrete outreach that I am aware of to keep any of the talented technology staff around from the Obama campaign," Woodhull said. In fact, he says the DNC has actually laid off key technology staffers, making the team smaller now than when Obama became president in 2009.
Getting politicians to embrace open-source code has long been a challenge. "I pushed to open-source code while at the DNC — it was a very difficult fight to even get permission from the senior staff to allow non-political infrastructure code to be open-sourced," says Woodhall. "It did not seem to the senior staff that it had a significant upside given the general discomfort that they had with the idea of putting things that might give the party a structural advantage into the public domain. That, and just not really understanding what all of these technical folks were going on about."
"It’s tough for people from startups used to making decision in a day or a week to move at the pace of politics."
A senior source within the campaign, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak, argued that while the engineers may be frustrated, the issue of what happens to the code is still wide open. "Of course it’s tough for people from startups used to making decisions in a day or a week to move at the pace of politics. But I am confident the right decision will get made. This is a complex structure, with the campaign, OFA, and the DNC all involved. Considering how politicians usually react to these ideas, if the word 'open-source' even comes out of the president’s mouth, then we’ve won a big battle."
Some voices at the DNC have expressed support for a hybrid model that allows a portion of the Obama campaign code to become public. And some elements of the campaign software, like the call tool, have already been repurposed to help the president mobilize support around issues post-election. But Ryan isn’t optimistic. "Based on their attempt to open-source a voter registration app, I don't believe they would get it right. It was free as in beer, but not free as in speech."
While the campaign and winning the election were fulfilling for these developers, Ryan isn't planning a return to politics. The aftermath has jaded him. "I think it just reiterates the fact that change won't come from Washington," says Ryan. "If techies want change, we have to do it from the outside."