Why Obama Should Open Source His Campaign Code Now, Not Later

President Obama's technical team wants to open source the technology that is credited with helping him win the 2012 election. The Democratic Party, however, has other plans, apparently intending to keep Project Narwhal and the rest of the software secret so as to give it an advantage over cash-rich but tech-poor Republicans. In so doing, the Democratic Party demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of open source and, indeed, how organizations benefit from technology.

Open sourcing Obama's campaign systems is actually in the Democratic Party's self-interest.

Open Is Good For Everybody

Some Democratic politicians like to think technology won them the election. Unfortunately, it's not true. Obama won because he ran a better campaign against a Republican candidate who looked OK on paper but was somewhat wooden in person.

Yes, part of Obama's "better campaign" was a crack team of data scientists who built what appears to be excellent system - dubbed "Narwhal" - "that acted as an interface to a single shared data store for all of the campaign's applications, making it possible to quickly develop new applications and to integrate existing ones into the campaign's system." This enabled the Obama team to divine and respond to voter preferences, among other things.

According to two of the Democratic National Committee's technical team, who want to see the software open sourced, the current plan is to "mothball" the software to conserve resources and protect the Democrats Big Data advantage. This, they argue, would be a mistake:

Right now, only presidential campaigns have the resources to build systems of this sophistication. The data and technology infrastructure from the Obama campaign cost millions of dollars to build, and even the most well-funded senate campaigns couldn't afford anything close to that.

But with some additional work, the data and tech infrastructure from the Obama campaign could be adapted to offer the same functionality to other progressive candidates and groups, giving them the opportunity to use these systems with their own supporters and volunteers. For smaller campaigns that would have no chance of creating these systems on their own, this could be a game-changing step forward.

The problem for the Democratic Party, however, is that even (gasp!) non-progressives could benefit from the technology if it were open sourced, which could lead to (double gasp!) Republicans winning. As The Verge reports, the Democratic Party has blocked efforts to open source the code, believing the software gives it and its candidates an advantage, and the Obama campaign is therefore keeping tight control of all campaign assets, including the software.

History Repeats Itself

For those of you who were around to witness Microsoft and other technology incumbents respond to open source's rise, this will all seem very familiar.

Like these Democratic politicians and bureaucrats, the tech giants resisted open source, arguing that proprietary software was the only way to innovate, and gave them an advantage against competitors. They, too, thought that software was more valuable as individuallyowned property, rather than as a collective effort that brought multiple values and talents to its development. 

They, too, completely missed the genesis of the very Big Data movement, firmly grounded in open-source technology that was developed through the collective efforts of Yahoo!, Google, Facebook and other new-school tech giants. Such companies understand that real competitive advantage derives from savvy business execution on services built from open-source software.

It's not a matter of hoarding ones and zeroes.

If the Democratic Party holds Narwhal and its other software in cold storage, as TechDirt's Mike Masnick argues, it's effectively rendering it useless, as the software will no longer be state of the art when the next election rolls around in four years time. In addition, it's foolish to think that the Obama campaign, however smart, employed the only intelligent engineers on the planet, and is the sole repository of wisdom about how to make the code better. It could benefit from collective efforts to improve it which, in turn, also help it recruit the best and brightest. The best developers want to work with open-source code, in an open source manner.

The days of winning by blocking access to one's software are over. This is true in technology, and it's true in political campaigns. For their own good the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee should open source Narwhal and other related technology. They truly have nothing to lose.

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