Future Tense

Republicans, Open-Source Community Both Want Obama for America To Release Campaign Tech Code

President Barack Obama uses a volunteer’s Apple iPhone to make a phone call to a supporter in Sept. 2012.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Open-source software rock stars created the technology that many believe helped Obama secure re-election in 2012. But in a move that goes against the open-source ethos, the Democrats don’t want to share.

During the election, the Romney and Obama campaigns both invested in the development of technology to get out the vote and collect valuable voting behavioral metrics. Obama’s “Houdini” (a “press-one-for-English” style phone tree system) and Romney’s “Orca” (a fail whale of a smartphone application) were simple solutions to get out the vote. But Obama’s jewel was Narwhal, a robust application programming interface. It wasn’t an app—it was the architecture of the campaign’s sophisticated data operation. Narwhal unified what Obama for America knew about voters, canvassers, event-goers, and phone-bankers, and it did it in real time, giving the incumbent a “massive advantage” in “targeting and persuading voters,” as Sasha Issenberg wrote in Slate in October 2012.

Now, Republicans want to get their hands on the political technology that might have won the election, and the people at Obama for America are none too eager to share. But while calls from the right to distribute the technology were to be expected, some of the most vocal advocates for its open release are two developers who helped build the platform.

A “dream team” of engineers were pulled in from Twitter, Google, and Facebook to develop the Obama campaign’s e-mail operation, a mobile app, and a donation collecting system. More than just building standalone tools for one time use, the team built a fully-fledged platform. The coolest part? They did it in just one year, and they almost entirely built it upon open-source code freely available to anyone. True to the spirit of open-source culture, the Narwhal developers are pushing to release their code to the public to give everyone the same tools to work with.

Obama for America says it doesn’t want to release the code because of constituent privacy concerns. But open-source proponents like these devs believe that that’s just an excuse to keep Narwhal out of the Republicans’ hands—the code can be shared without compromising private voter information.


In December, Jim Pugh and Nathan Woodhull, two tech devs for the DNC, took to the Huffington Post to warn against closing off the Obama API for fear of competition. “Republicans are lagging behind Democrats right now on the data and technology front, but after the shellacking they experienced in the last election, there’s little doubt that they’ll be pouring in resources to catch up,” they write.

Without giving the API the chance to breathe and grow with changing voter behavior and trends, Pugh and Woodhull argue, Obama could ultimately be slowing down technological innovation—and that may give the GOP the ultimate advantage.

“We need to keep moving forward if we want to keep our advantage on this front. The technology industry never stops moving forward. Neither should we.”

The arena may be new, but old-school political beef never changes.