Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: Meet the tech guru running Barack Obama’s campaign

Patrick Stafford /

Technology runs politics more than ever before.

Four years ago, Facebook played a crucial part in the 2008 United States presidential election. Now, both Twitter and Facebook are playing a pivotal role in the election process. Not only are the two platforms being used by voters to spread their views, but campaigns understand how essential these tools are to getting elected.

And you won’t get elected unless you use them well – which is why they hire people who know how to do exactly that.

Harper Reed is the head of technology for the Barack Obama campaign. He’s in charge of making sure that not only everything runs smoothly, but much, much more.

He’s so important to the campaign that it wouldn’t let online publication Mother Jones have access to the man for an interview. He simply told the publication his job is to make sure technology is “a force multiplier”.

What Reed does is so secret the campaign keeps it classified.

So where exactly does this man come from? The profile reveals an intriguing and strange roadmap for a man who has some eccentric pastimes – he’s popular on the professional yo-yo circuit.

Reed studied philosophy and computer science at Cornell College, and then moved to Chicago to start working on tech projects. He started the T-shirt company Threadless, which acts as a type of crowdsourced shop where users vote on the T-shirt designs they want most – guaranteeing sales.

Reed left in 2009, but he hasn’t just made his name as an entrepreneur. He’s been tinkering with tech for a long time.

He hacked a Chicago Transit Authority app in 2008, and used the data to track traffic incidents. The city gave him an award for it.

So how is he transforming politics? Simple – with data.

Campaigns collect huge amounts of data. Voter information makes up the bulk of it, and it provides some key insights into how a president or candidate can win or lose.

Reed’s job was to bring this all together. According to the publication, the campaign’s project was to make sure analysts could identify trends and then use that information to create specific campaigns:

For example, if the campaign knows that a particular voter in north-eastern Ohio is a pro-life Catholic union member, it will leave him off email blasts relating to reproductive rights and personalize its pitch by highlighting Obama’s role in the auto bailout—or Romney’s outsourcing past.

A ProPublica analysis revealed that a single OFA fundraising email came in no less than 11 different varieties.

It doesn’t stop there. Canvassers will use apps to access information about voters she’s trying to contact, and can tailor their pitches around that:

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.

This approach separates Barack Obama’s approach from Mitt Romney – who has outsourced most of his data needs.

It’s creating a start-up culture in-house – all to make a better campaign.

Marissa Mayer’s fork in the road

Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer is facing a lot of scrutiny right now over her decision to return to the company just a few weeks after giving birth.

The former Google head of search was in the spotlight earlier this year when she took the top job at Yahoo, and that continues even in motherhood.

There’s a lot of talk, right or wrong, about how she’ll manage in the job. A new piece at New York Magazine dissects the problem: Mayer will face criticism for a decision that no one would care about if she were a man:

When Yahoo announced Mayer’s appointment on July 16, the Internet was cautiously pleased. But when, in a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre later that same night, Mayer tweeted that she was expecting, interest in her blew up.

She had already given an interview to Fortune on the subject, to be published simultaneously: She included a link in her tweet.

None of this is a reflection on her competence or how good a mother she will be, but she’ll encounter criticism no matter what she does, making her tenure at Yahoo that much harder:

Scrutinizing her every move is the rest of Yahoo’s activist board, eleven (mostly) men who will surely fire her if she can’t bring up the price of the company’s stock holdings.

The real damage of the smartphone patent war

Smartphone makers have been flinging patent lawsuits back and forth for years now, with Apple and Samsung at the centre of the dispute.

The situation is this: because so much common software and hardware usage is patented, manufacturers have to pay each other royalties. The more patents you control, the more royalties you receive.

It’s serious business. More than $US20 billion has been spent on litigation and patents in the last two years alone.

But what’s the real impact of all of this?

A new piece at The New York Times points out patent litigation is stifling innovation. Michael Phillips, an entrepreneur in the United States, had spent 30 years trying to create voice-recognition software.

But it wasn’t Apple that stopped him. It was another company called Nuance:

“I have patents that can prevent you from practicing in this market,” Nuance’s chief executive, Paul Ricci, told Mr Phillips, according to executives involved in that conversation.

Mr Ricci issued an ultimatum: Mr Phillips could sell his firm to Mr Ricci or be sued for patent infringements. When Mr Phillips refused to sell, Mr Ricci’s company filed the first of six lawsuits.

All of a sudden, Phillips is spending millions on court fees. And even though he won the ensuing court case, he already spent $3 million on fees.

“We were on the brink of changing the world before we got stuck in this legal muck,” Mr Phillips said.

There are plenty of small companies being caught in the crossfire here. This piece does a good job of offering an explanation as to why.

Often, companies are sued for violating patents they never knew existed or never dreamed might apply to their creations, at a cost shouldered by consumers in the form of higher prices and fewer choices.

We may have the best technology in our pocket. But at what cost?

Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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