Lessons From Obama for America Campaign


Happy New Year! I hope its begun well. A while ago (November to be Precise) I read an article titled: When the Nerds Go Marching In about a group of engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google built the software that drove Barack Obama’s reelection. That post got me thinking. What if politicians in Kenya were to adopt such a strategy and not rely solely on the traditional forms of advertising (TV, Dailies, Billboards etc)

Traditional forms of advertising are quite costly. for example a full page printout on a daily costs nearly a quarter of a million shillings and a billboard just as much or even more. According to CCK 6.4 million Kenyans have access to the internet and that number is growing at an astounding rate. Any person of sound mind who is contesting in the upcoming general elections must see this as a potentially untapped segment. If you are a politician you cannot afford to be disconnected at any moment during and after the campaigns.

Back to the lessons to be learnt from Obama for America. Unless you were living under the proverbial stone, it is a well known fact that The Obama campaign raised a lot of money almost a Billion dollars (if not more). Some if not all Kenyan political aspirants have taken to sending Text Messages to their supporters asking them to attend the various fund raising functions in a bid to raise capital. I have gotten a few :) and will decide if and when to donate.

The 2012 Obama Team made a wise choice in investing in this highly qualified individuals who built a masterpiece which contributed in large to Obama’s victory. The system code named Narwhal was divided into subsystems (Software Engineering 101) that handle different aspects of the campaign. One subsystem handled emailing the list of registered supporters who gave out their email addresses, another subsystem was responsible for sending personal text messages to supporters and donors and yet another subsystem handled all the details about transactions for example when a donation is made. The last subsystem handled all aspects of social media, which kept supporters and non-supporters updated.

Kenyan politicians should adopt technology into their (and no having a Website, Facebook page and Twitter account is not enough) According to Harper Reed (Obama Campaign’s Chief Technology Officer) Narwhal was built for ease of use to accommodate even the least technical people for example people could donate money online through Narwhal’s web interface and also through their phones. In Kenya this could be easy especially with the popularity of mobile money service and Web API’s. 

Change can be a very scary thing, to base most of your campaigns online would be silly but being totally offline is as silly. Kenya is also not short of qualified engineers who are well versed in both web/mobile web and native application development. In an email conversation I had with Harper Reed (cool and kind fellow) he said that they used existing technologies and would seldom write new frameworks/software, although Narwhal is a totally different piece of software its components are not new. They even hosted with third party hosts and not entirely in-house. The cost of outsourcing equipment is cheaper in the short run (such as a campaign period) hence politicians should invest.

I applaud the IEBC for partnering with Google to launch an API for developers to use in order to monitor the election process. My final point is that the election process including campaigns can no longer afford to be “offline” with the current technological advancements. Any forward thinking politician will notice the potential reach of their “online campaigns” as seen from the example of the 2012 Obama campaign.

One last piece of advice to my fellow Kenyans, vote wisely and peacefully do not allow yourself to be incited by politicians but also vote for whoever you want and lastly vote for the future and prosperity of Kenya as a whole and not for selfish reasons. Have a good evening!

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