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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.  

dyna January 27, 2013 at 5:43 pm

The GOP could build a work-alike clone without violating copyright if they really want to, and like you mention it’ll be obsolete in 2016 anyway. And making the software open source will keep it alive and updated as developers will be free to experiment with and improve it. The final benefit is that activist groups and nonprofits that could never afford such software will be able to utilize the software for fundraising, volunteer recruitment, etc.

Besides, open source just doesn’t fit in with the republican mindset anyway…

Globe199 January 27, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Here’s a better idea.  Modify the code.  Change a couple for loops, arrays, etc.  But don’t tell them.


dyna January 27, 2013 at 9:04 pm

They could make the stuff that’s not cutting edge and would be useful to non profits and such free software, but hold on to the best political software weaponry.

Mr Math January 27, 2013 at 9:51 pm

I really don’t like giving the Republicans any useful ideas, but keeping it only for certain Democrats to use could be more of a problem. Candidates with access to the data and programs would have a distinct advantage over other candidates. In 2016, should only one Democratic Presidential candidate have access, or should it be open to all candidates? Shouldn’t we have as many of our volunteers knowledgable about using this resource as possible to help us win future elections?  

ericf January 28, 2013 at 2:21 am

It’s a complex question, and the comments here have been a shorter version of a really good discussion in the comments on the cross-posting of this diary on Daily Kos. I just wrote a response to those comments on Kos, and pardon me for copying and pasting rather than re-writing:

I’ve learned more about open-source licensing than I knew before, and I’ve become surer about my inference that the developers and campaign pros are talking past each other and have no idea of the other’s concerns.

Obviously none of us not on the inside know the details of the specific licenses. Though I’m clearly on the side of keeping it away from the Republicans, if the licenses require releasing any new code developed, that’s it then. Out it goes, regardless of consequences.

The many comments on the cultural differences between the two parties do make me doubt the Republicans would ever be able to do more than just catch up a bit, but not all the way and never be able to add much. However, that’s just doubt, and given the stakes, we have to consider risk. By that I mean that this isn’t the same as one Linux vendor competing with another over who added the best feature or offers the best tech support. The parties aren’t competing over who has the best analytics tool. The DNC is competing with an opponent that not only has a big financial advantage and a demonstrated willingness to cheat to win, but when they win, they immediately act to suppress the right to organize a union, the right to hold a protest, the right to vote. It would be as if the winning Linux vendor didn’t merely win a few more sales, but could pass a law forbidding its losing opponent to continue development.

In other words, maybe the Republicans culturally can’t use the tools or catch up, but the consequences of taking that risk and being wrong are just massive.

The practical reality is that while some organizations could continue their own development once they have the source, most of us can’t. I’m the chair of my local Democratic Party, and I don’t have the time or knowledge to work on the code, and everyone else is a volunteer working for the party after work and after the kids are taken care of. We couldn’t do development, but we sure could use the tools if they were in a ready-made package. So as long as all licenses of the underlying software are complied with, I want the DNC to keep the developers on, and have them adapt the Obama tools to something that can be used at a state and local level. Give tools and even code to allied organizations to the extent campaign finance laws allow.

username January 28, 2013 at 8:02 am

We need a thorough discussion of this, and let’s hope the decision-makers on it are listening to a wide range of stakeholders.

On ” if the licenses require releasing any new code developed,” it’s hard to believe that an organization as smart as the Obama team built would fall into this trap. If they did, shame on them for not thinking farther ahead.

On “adapt the Obama tools to something that can be used at a state and local level,” absolutely! Lower level Dem candidates need, but can’t afford, this quality of development.

Worse, with Citizens United in place, lower level candidates are beginning to suffer sudden and expensive attacks from unaccountable groups and individuals, against which they have almost no reasonable defense. My bet is this phenomenon will increase rapidly over time. The Obama tools are more necessary now than they ever would have been in the past.

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