Project story

Improving Obama's campaign software

We traveled to Obama offices in swing states studying the campaign's field operation to help inform the redesign of campaign software. And we did it by spending only 9 days in the field. Using quick and efficient methods, we uncovered needs for new features and enhancements for existing ones.

The 2008 presidential race caught the public's interest and, on the Democratic side, attracted record numbers of volunteers. It also featured the greatest use of the Web—and software designed to run campaigns—ever in American politics. The Obama campaign connected to more people via the Web than any other before it. Their primary websites, barackobama.com and my.barackobama.com, raised money, invited people to events, and helped recruit volunteers.

A different sort of Web-based software also played an important role. Campaign managers have long known that the best way to persuade undecided voters is to talk with them in person or, less preferably, over the phone. Field office staff and volunteers must make complex decisions, including which voters to visit or call, when to do this, and how frequently. Voter Activation Network (VAN) software is used to manage millions of records about how people voted in the past; which candidates they are favoring in the current election; and some demographic and contact details. It also helps plan activities such as door-to-door (canvassing) and calling.

Because of the cyclic nature of campaigns, software vendors have not had steady revenue streams to support the continuous improvement of their products. For the Obama campaign, developers were mainly busy responding to top-down requests from campaign headquarters regarding data cleanliness and performance bottlenecks. It remained to be seen whether the software would also meet the needs of thousands of staff and volunteers on-the-ground,many of whom were younger and had high expectations of software efficiency and ease of use, based on their experience with popular Web applications. For us, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Our primary role was to find out how well the VAN software was working and to discover improvements and possible new features.

This project was presented at the Agile2009 conference.

» Download the conference paper

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