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The Story of the Cloud and the Election

November 20, 2012 No Comments

Featured Article By Ryan Galloway

In the aftermath of the presidential election, both candidates made sure to thank long lists of people and organizations for their contributions and hard work. But one contributor was noticeably absent: the cloud. The cloud played a vital role in the campaign efforts of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s camps and cemented itself as a very necessary component for election bids to come.

President Obama’s camp, for example, took the advantage of the cloud’s power by creating mobile technology to locate potential supporters and mobilize them to vote. A program called “Dashboard” allowed volunteers to find opportunities and receive updated assignments in the field. Another team used massive amounts of polling data to measure, say, George Clooney’s sway over female voters.

The Obama campaign also used the cloud to crunch staggering amounts of data on potential donors, allowing staff to target them with highly specific messages. The Obama camp deployed the cloud in a similar fashion to predict how voter turnout would look in key battleground states.

Also of note was the tremendous effect social media had on the 2012 election. The president, for example, tallied over 33 million “likes” on Facebook during this campaign, as opposed to just 2 million in 2008. Video sharing sites like YouTube also provided a fertile space for grassroots activism, with thousands of supporters uploading their own videos unprompted by the campaign.

Many of the campaigns’ 200-plus programs were open-source, allowing the campaign to keep spending low while maintaining customizable functionality. Michael Slaby, the president’s Chief Innovation and Integration Officer, told The New York Times last week that the power of the cloud let the campaign “attack and engineer own approach to problems, and build solutions for an environment that moves so rapidly you can’t plan … It made a huge difference this time.”

Mitt Romney’s campaign also made use of the cloud, though the Republican candidate devoted fewer resources to technical solutions overall — with some technical problems to show for it. Romney’s camp deployed Project Orca, a mobile website (not an app) designed to act as an on-the-ground data mining effort. Orca would be an exercise in “hyper-targeting” likely supporters and then mobilizing them on election day. It was an ambitious project, and the idea behind it was innovative, but the technology to support it simply wasn’t there.

Despite Orca’s manifold problems, when the site did work, it worked almost too well. The data center built to support the effort was, by many accounts, poorly designed and crashed under the traffic of an army of smartphone-toting Romney supporters. A succinct post-mortem from Ars Technica gives us considerable insight:

“Part of the issue was Orca’s architecture. While 11 backend database servers had been provisioned for the system — probably running on virtual machines — the ‘mobile’ piece of Orca was a Web application supported by a single Web server and a single application server. Rather than a set of servers in the cloud, “I believe all the servers were in Boston at the Garden or a data center nearby,” wrote Hans Dittuobo, a Romney volunteer at Boston Garden.

Ars Technica continues:

“And whatever testing environment Romney’s campaign team and IT consultants used, it wasn’t one that mimicked the conditions of Election Day. As a result, Orca’s launch on Election Day was essentially a beta test of the software — not something most IT organizations would do in such a high-stakes environment.”

All told, the effort behind Romney’s big data failure was considerable and the idea itself held much promise. However, the execution was lacking, the testing time minimal, and the supporting infrastructure was far from robust enough to handle the massive army of volunteers expected to use it.

While both candidates experienced ups and downs with cloud and mobile technology,  the biggest testament to the ascendant power of the cloud in the electoral process is the success of Nate Silver’s data-driven analysis of voting patterns. Silver, using computer modeling and simulated elections, managed to predict the outcome of elections in every state with a stunning 100% accuracy.

In a phone interview last Thursday, Silver said: “This is a victory for the stuff (computer modeling) in politics … It doesn’t mean we’re going to solve world peace with a computer. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be able predict earthquakes … but we can chip away at the margins.”

Ryan Galloway is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City and occasionally blogs for Rackspace Hosting.

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