Technology and the US Election

One of the more interesting stories to come out the US election last week was the use of technology by both Democrats and Republicans.

Whilst the result of the election cannot be put down to each party’s respective software, the stories to come out of the election about the relative success or failure of technology in the election are fascinating. Here are two stories from each side of the election; one a success, the other a failure.

Success – targeted SMS messages

“I was at a Democrat fundraiser for media types in Chicago. At the start of the evening, everyone was encouraged to provide their cell numbers to the organisers. By 2am, myself (an associate producer), as well as a low-ranked intern, a mid-ranked MSNBC assistant producer and a senior executive producer were all out at a bar together.

Suddenly, all of our phones beeped simultaneously – we had texts direct from Barack Obama, of all people. All of the American citizens were being asked for a donation to the campaign, four days before the election. The message stressed how much difference a last-minute donation could make, but the text was exactly the same except for one factor – the amount.

With nothing more than our phone numbers, the intern was asked to text back to donate $5; the assistant producer was asked for $12; and the senior exec was asked for $120. From nothing more than a phone number, the Obama campaign could divide us up by rank and disposable income, within five hours of getting our data.”

Failure – ORCA

“Orca was up against a tough and more seasoned competitor in the Obama campaign’s technology and data analysis system. [Romney campaign communications director] Gitcho said that Orca was selected as the name for Romney’s data-mining and micro-targeting operation because of the name of Obama campaign’s similar operation — Narwhal, after the whale with a long, straight tusk. “Orca is the only known predator to that,” she told NPR.

Gitcho said that based on the data, the Romney campaign could take action to boost voter participation. “If we know that there is a low turnout in one of our target precincts, then we can lob phones into them…we’ll send a robocall, or whatever, or our state offices will have volunteers to pick up the phone and say, ‘Have you voted yet, go to precinct here.'”
In the end, Gitcho’s brand new model didn’t deliver the votes.

Conservative commentator Byron York wrote in the Washington Examiner following Romney’s loss, “Early in the evening, one aide said that, as of 4 p.m., Orca still projected a Romney victory of somewhere between 290 and 300 electoral votes. Obviously that didn’t happen. Later, another aide said Orca had pretty much crashed in the heat of the action. ‘Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,’ said the aide.”

Romney’s state of the art technology clearly didn’t provide the crucial difference he needed to become the 45th president of the U.S. There were reports that the Orca app crashed on Election Day, and wasn’t beta-tested sufficiently.”

Finally, a mention to the undoubted hero of the 2012 election, NYT blogger statistician Nate Silver, who correctly predicted the results from all 50 states. You can read his blog here.

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