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Giving away the Obama code base is a bad idea

by Eric Ferguson on January 27, 2013 · 7 comments

Obama campaign dashboardThere is a dispute between the developers who worked on the Obama campaign and the political pros at the DNC over what to do with the tools developed for the Obama campaign. Essentially, the developers want to make the code open-source while the DNC wants to keep it proprietary. “Open-source” means anyone can use the code and develop their own changes to it. My first thought was that this essentially means giving it away to the Republicans, and my reaction was, “Are you kidding!?!?” After giving it some thought though, looking at both sides … are you kidding?!?! (reversing the order of the question marks and exclamation points makes it technically a different thought).

Just to make sure all readers have the rough idea of what code they’re disputing about, you probably heard by now about the technological edge the Obama campaign had over the Romney campaign. Probably many of you used Dashboard for organizing neighborhood teams, setting up events, etc. More behind the scenes were technologies allowing such things as testing and analysis of e-mail fundraising messages, predictive analytics of voters, and analysis of TV audiences to efficiently buy ads. As that sentence implies, a bunch of people high up in the campaign couldn’t help blabbing about what they built. The Republicans figured out that the Obama campaign did some things Romney didn’t do that gave Obama an edge, but they didn’t know what until the election was over, when it was handed to them. Not how to do what Obama did, but Republicans hadn’t even known what Obama did. Now they do. They still don’t know how to build it, but now they know what to build.
Anyway, that seems like enough advantage to giveaway. Presumably the Republicans will figure out how to build similar tools and perform similar analysis themselves. They certainly now know to spend much more heavily on developers and statisticians. Do we have to give them everything by releasing the code to whoever wants it?

I’m actually not indifferent to the concerns of the developers. They’re concerned that the software will be “mothballed” until 2016, meaning left to sit until the next presidential campaign. I hope they’re concerns are unfounded. If anyone at the DNC really does think they can put the code in some virtual bottom drawer and dig it out again to run the same campaign in 2016, that person needs to be put on stuffing envelopes or window cleaning, but they sure shouldn’t be making decisions. You’d think it would be obvious to anyone living in the digital era that the marvelous 2012 tech will be obsolete in four years, and it should be obvious to anyone working in politics that the other party will try to catch up, and maybe above all, my concern as a grassroots activist, the tools need to be used for state and local parties and campaigns NOW. Get the developers back on payroll, and have them adapt the Obama tools to a local level. Imagine if every Senate campaign, even state senate campaigns, every local party, could have a Dashboard for organizing.

The developers also have an ethical concern, namely that some open-source software was use to develop the Obama campaign tools, so what they built should be released. That’s a reasonable concern. One developer interviewed for The Verge article said they’re thinking the software could do a lot of good the next for years if used by progressive groups, which would also further it’s development. The developers also suggest that failure to make the Obama code open-source will make it much harder to recruit developers for the next campaign.

However, they seem not to be considering the other side, judging from this quote,

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,”

High-minded? It’s about being able to compete with an opposing that often seems to see the Democrats as an enemy to be destroyed. Think the Republicans will share anything they develop that actually works? That the Republicans will refrain from using their advantage in corporate and billionaire money just because the Democrats don’t have it? Yes, the Democrats have a technical edge, and I’m mystified the developers have trouble seeing the utter necessity of maintaining it.

Maybe, to satisfy ethical concerns, some of the code can be released. Maybe some doesn’t give away anything to the Republicans that they don’t already have. Obviously I’m not privy to enough information to speculate knowledgeably on just what. Providing the code to progressive groups could do a lot of good, provided there are controls to stop the code from getting loose, and provided such help doesn’t violate campaign finance laws. Maybe the tools could be given out, but not the code. When the tools reach the local level, few people would have the ability to develop, but they could learn to use them.

So we’re looking at three separate problems: preventing the code from getting loose and letting the GOP quickly catch up; getting it out to Democratic-friendly organizations, especially state and local parties and candidates; keeping development going so the tools remain current and better than what the GOP has. My impression is the developers and campaign pros are talking past each other like Republicans and facts. It would be a disaster to either give up the technical advantage, or to let the code gather moss until 2016.

A bunch of volunteers and local campaign staff learned how to use the tools to elect Obama. Imagine if we could keep doing that for congressional and state legislative candidates in 2014.  

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