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Goldstuck on Gadgets

People trump gadgets in politics

The man behind Barack Obama’s 2012 digital campaign will be in South Africa next week. Harper Reed sum up his hi-tech campaign philosophy for ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The man behind the online strategy for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign says it’s not about the technology.

That was an essential principle in planning and using technological innovation during the elections, says Harper Reed, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the Obama for America campaign.

‚”The most important thing to remember is that campaigns are about people,‚” he said in an interview ahead of his first visit to South Africa.

‚”The technology is important in empowering and enabling people, and that’s it. People think they need technology for technology’s sake, but actually you need people and ways to empower them for a successful campaign. This is a general principle for online or offline campaigns.‚”

Reed’s background does not hold any clues to the complex combination of skills needed to run one of the most high-profile digital campaigns in history.From 2005 to 2009 he had been CTO of the clothing company Threadless (on which local start-up success Springleap was modeled). In the three years leading up to the Obama re-election, he worked with cloud-based hosting service Rackspace and the tech-oriented venture capital firm Sandbox Industries.

He also developed a bunch of community-based apps, but nothing of a scale that would suggest one of the greatest crowd-sourcing operations in political history. At Obama’s campaign HQ in Chicago last year, he had to engineer not only a general online election campaign, but also a ‚”get-out-the-vote‚” programme. It has been described as the most sophisticated political campaign of all time.

Yet, he says there were no models or case studies from campaigns by brands or organisations, that he could draw on to inspire or inform him for the Obama campaign.

He says, simply: ‚”I have a background in engineering. I enjoy building teams to do big things, so having worked for companies where I saw this in motion helped prepare me for my role.‚”

With his background in development and crowdsourcing, an understanding of social media and a deep interest in big data, the question that natually arises is whether each of these depend on each other in a campaign of this nature.

‚”Yes, they interact, but don’t necessarily depend on each other ,‚” he says. ‚”You can do one without the other.‚”

He does not have an easy answer, however, to the question of how to leverage any of these without massive budgets.

‚”In terms of starting points, the most important one is to find an organisation, nation-builder or brand that can help you when you don’t have the resources available,‚” he says.

Naturally, as part of the Obama campaign, he does not see the PRISM revelations about the way the US government is using big data for domestic surveillance as the threat that is portrayed in the media.

‚”Big data is like a knife. A knife can easily be used to stab someone or it could be used in cooking or for creating a beautiful sculpture. It all depends on how it’s used. Of course big data could be misused, but I choose to have a positive outlook and believe it’ll be used positively.‚”

*Harper Reed will address the Nedbank Digital Edge Live event in Midrand on 3 October. Details at

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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