Obama's Techies Want To Open Source Their Work, But Politicians Want To Keep It Secret

from the techies-vs.-politicians dept

Right after the election, we noted the stories showing how Obama's technology advantage was impressive, while the get-out-the-vote technology that the Romney campaign built up appeared to fail spectacularly. However, there's an interesting post mortem to this, which shows how techies and politicians still usually come from very, very different worlds. The world class team of technologists who helped build up Obama's campaign tech are trying to release their work as open source -- but Democratic Party operatives are trying to keep it secret, believing (almost certainly incorrectly) that this gives them a proprietary advantage:
But in the aftermath of the election, a stark divide has emerged between political operatives and the techies who worked side-by-side. 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.
The politicians who want to keep it locked up are making a huge mistake for a very large number of reasons that people who are steeped in technology understand. Let's list out some of the ways in which it's stupid to keep this secret:
  1. It basically makes the technology useless. As one of the techies who worked on the project notes, the software "will be mothballed," meaning that four years from now it'll be useless. What the politicians see as keeping an advantage is really just squandering a useful framework.
  2. It completely misunderstands how technology advances and works. No one expects software from today to be the same four years from now. By mothballing the tech, it will mean that the next campaign will effectively be starting from scratch. Open sourcing it would allow additional work to continue on this.
  3. You can learn from others as well. The really shortsighted part is this insistence that open sourcing it "helps the other side." Again, what will be used four years (or even two years) from now will be quite different as the technology advances. And having it open sourced means that lots of folks can jump in and build on the tech in the meantime. And, yes, even Republican techies might work on it, and the Dems can learn from them as well.
  4. Keeping it closed pisses off the techies, who will be less likely to contribute or join the team next time around.
  5. If the Democrats believe they have stronger technologists, then next election they should still be able to make innovations faster than their opponents.
  6. It quite possibly violates some open source licenses, since much of the code was built on open source software, some of which requires any additional work to also be open sourced.
  7. Keeping the tech secret also means that other campaigns (beyond just elections) can't make use of the technology as well, which could actually hurt causes that the Democrats support.
In many ways this is the same old battle we've seen from legacy companies vs. more open upstarts for years. The legacy players think their advantage is in keeping the code secret. The upstarts know that's wrong: the pace of innovation and the rate of change means that by being open you can better keep up and do more. Keeping it closed guarantees stagnation and falling behind.

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  1. icon
    The Mighty Buzzard (profile), 25 Jan 2013 @ 4:37pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Either. The GPL explicitly grants permission to modify and redistribute in both.

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