One of President Obama’s advantages in the 2012 presidential race – besides running against a horrible candidate – was his campaign’s technology. While the Romney campaign had epic technology failures the President sailed to re-election with a fully functioning and innovative data management system.
The problem? The Obama tech team built its system using open source software.
While the Obama campaign developers want to, in keeping with the open source ethos, release the code their DNC and Obama For America (OFA) counterparts are wary. The DNC is particularly concerned with the Republicans gaining from the use of the software and OFA is considering licensing opportunities.
From The Verge:
At issue is the code created during the Obama for America (OFA) 2012 campaign: the digital architecture behind the campaign’s website, its system for collecting donations, its email operation, and its mobile app.
When the campaign ended, these programmers wanted to put their work back into the coding community for other developers to study and improve upon. Politicians in the Democratic party felt otherwise, arguing that sharing the tech would give away a key advantage to the Republicans. Three months after the election, the data and software is still tightly controlled by the president and his campaign staff, with the fate of the code still largely undecided. It’s a choice the OFA developers warn could not only squander the digital advantage the Democrats now hold, but also severely impact their ability to recruit top tech talent in the future.
Beyond demoralizing activists and operatives who believe in the open source movement, there are also practical concerns associated with not releasing the code.
In this sense, the decision to mothball the tech would be a violation of the developers’ ethical principles. But the argument is about more than whether putting the tech back in the hands of the public is the right thing to do.
“The biggest issue we saw with all of the commercial election software we used was that it’s only updated every four years,” says [OFA Front-End Software Engineer] Ryan. It was these outdated options that convinced team Obama to build all the campaign tech in-house. If the code OFA built was put on ice at the DNC until 2016, it would become effectively worthless. “None of that will be useful in four years, technology moves too fast,” said Ryan. “But if our work was open and people were forking it and improving it all the time, then it keeps up with changes as we go.”
By all accounts this is not a done deal. There are even discussions of just releasing parts of the code. But what remains is a larger fault line among the factions within the Democratic Party. The open source movement’s ethics are not necessarily compatible with the values (or lack thereof) of the corporate wing of the party now firmly in control.
That being said, the pragmatic argument made by the Obama tech team may prove persuasive given the competitive nature of partisan politics. What is the point of having an advantage that will be worthless in four years?