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Obama’s secret weapon in re-election: Pakistani scientist Rayid Ghani

Published Jan 21, 2013 03:36am
President Barack Obama speaking at his campaign headquarters in Chicago. — File Photo
President Barack Obama speaking at his campaign headquarters in Chicago. — File Photo

Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black president in 2008 was historic on many levels, but the truth may be that Obama’s re-election in 2012 was a much bigger feat.

Visiting his young campaign staffers the morning after his re-election at his campaign headquarters in Chicago, a tearful Obama told the staffers that they had been part of the best campaign team in history.

“You're smarter, you're better organised, you're more effective,” he said. “So I'm absolutely confident that all of you are going to do just amazing things in your lives.”

With a sluggish economy, unemployment teetering at around the eight per cent mark, and growing anti-Obama sentiment in some parts of the country, a second term seemed an uphill task for Obama and it was going to take an extraordinary campaign to make it happen.

Things were different in 2008. Back then he had the fortune of an electorate grown weary of the Bush presidency looking for change and with no real record to defend. His mercurial rise and the zeitgeist of the country at the time seemed to have coincided at the right time.

This time it was going to be harder, with a first term that had left some of his more ardent supporters with a tinge of disappointment given the promise of his first campaign, and the Republicans growing even more strident in their opposition.  America hadn’t been so politically polarized in a long time.

But in a presidential campaign, the incumbent enjoys a few advantages and one of them is a strong organisational setup.

From the get-go David Axelrod, the brain behind the Obama campaign, recognised the role that data and information could play in the election. The process had been initiated in 2008 but databases were scattered and it wasn’t until the 2010 midterm elections that the Democratic Party, despite heavy losses, was able to streamline the data to accurately forecast results in a meaningful way.

Enter Rayid Ghani.

At first impression Ghani comes across as an affable person, who speaks in short, clipped sentences that don’t give away any more than he intends to. Right away you get the feeling that he knows what he’s talking about. But his unassuming manner belies the fact that he is one of the leading experts in the growing field of analytics and data mining.

An alum of Karachi Grammar School, he moved to the Unites States for college where he attended a small liberal arts school in Tennessee called Sewanee: University of the South.

There he studied computer science and mathematics, but as with many undergraduate experiences, he used his time there to find his true calling.

“What I really did there was explore and figure out what I wanted to do, which ended up being a research career in some form of artificial intelligence and machine learning,” Ghani said. “I was motivated by two goals: One was to study and understand how we (humans) learn and two:  I wanted to solve large practical problems by making computers smarter though the use of data.”

That eventually led him to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for graduate school where he studied Machine Learning and Data Mining.

It was during this period that he started working at Accenture Technology labs as chief scientist, before joining Obama For America.

At Accenture, Ghani mined mountains of private data of given corporations to find statistical patterns that could forecast consumer behavior.

“We were a small group of people who were kind of looking at the next generation of tools that would be beneficial for businesses,” he said. “We were trying to find new approaches to analysing data and see how we could apply it to businesses.”

In today’s data-centric world, the one-size-fits-all model is no longer an efficient use of a company’s resources. More and more, corporations are looking for increasingly targeted approaches to attract consumers.

Similar to how Facebook uses information from user profiles to target its advertising, Ghani helped businesses find patterns in consumer behavior so that his clients could develop different strategies that suit individual preferences. It’s what’s known as customer-relationship management or CRM in the corporate sector.

Having spent 10 years at Accenture, Ghani said he was looking for a move into the non-profit sector, which, serendipitously, is when the Obama campaign came knocking.

“I was always interested in politics,” he said. “Living in the US for 17 years, you tend to follow the politics of the country, because it does affect every person. You read about it, discuss it with co-workers and friends. So [the campaign] wasn’t a completely impossible direction to take.”

Jumping aboard the Obama campaign as chief scientist, Ghani’s job was essentially similar to what he’d done at Accenture — to make sense of huge amounts of information.

“The core of the work I was doing was looking at a large amount of data and making sense of it to help other people make better decisions,” he said.

The basic idea was to merge digital information with details gathered from voting records and interaction in order to provide a blueprint for efficient spending.

“Most of the data we had was from data that we collected either from interacting with people, which might mean either we called someone, someone donated money to us, or if they volunteered, or from voter registration records,” he said.

There’s a common misconception among people that among the data used was voters’ magazine subscriptions, shopping habits, and other specific behavioral data.

“A lot of the things you might have read on the internet are mostly not correct,” he said with a wry laugh. “We don’t care about what car you drive, or what magazines you read. For one thing we don’t have that data, and it’s not very useful. What car you drive doesn’t tell us which way you’ll be voting.”

The real advantage of data is that it helps in using the resources at your disposal as efficiently as you can, which in the case of political campaigns is money.

“How data helps you, is it makes you more efficient and it helps you spend your money carefully and in the right way,” Ghani said. “You could pick up the phonebook and just start calling everyone, but you’ll either waste calls on people who are already going to vote, or on people who can’t be persuaded to vote your way. But with a data-driven approach, you can target those voters who are much more likely be affected by that call and pick up voters you didn’t have.”

By discerning which voters are the most likely to be swayed, the campaign can then design its ad campaigns and alter its strategy for maximum effectiveness. It’s the smart-bomb method to political campaigning.

But the truth is that we’re still in the infancy of this data-based approach to political campaigns.

“My personal hope is that as campaigns get mature in the use of data,” he said. “Data isn't a secret weapon but an enabler of better democracy and more public participation. I see the future use of data as enabling more personalised and relevant interactions with voters, to get them more education about issues, more involved in political discussions, and have them even participate in creating public policies.”

And it’s an approach that can be applied anywhere if tailored to the circumstances and realities of any given place — even Pakistan.

“A lot of this is certainly applicable in Pakistan but things have to start small,” Ghani said.  “First, there is a lack of data, so political parties need to start collecting this data themselves. Then they need to use it to understand the voters and allocate resources more efficiently. Parties that focus more on grassroots organising are the ones most likely to collect and make more effective use of this data and as this process gets more mature and democratic, I hope it leads to a better educated public making informed voting decisions that are good for the country and its people.”

Being of Pakistani origin, it’s not a stretch to wonder what role Ghani’s own politics play in this, especially given the ups and downs the relationship between America and Pakistan has taken over the years. But for Ghani, whose family lives in London, while he works in the US, it’s a lot simpler.

“At this point I really don’t know what I am,” he said. “It’s less about country than about the larger world. For me it was a really easy decision, ‘Is Obama better for the world than (Mitt) Romney?’ Absolutely.”

What attracted Ghani to the campaign was Obama himself as a candidate.

“He is great at emotionally connecting with, motivating, and energising people but what was more important to me was what he had done in his first term and how much still remained to be done,” he said.

In addition to that, it was the diversity of the people on the campaign that was one of the great things about working for the Obama campaign Ghani said.

“There were so many people with different backgrounds and experiences, but they were all there for the same reason,” he said.

The campaign itself was an understandably grueling and exhausting experience.

“It’s unlike any other workplace,” he said. “We were, spending 15, 16, 18 hours a day together, with no weekends. It’s something you enjoy when it’s over, because when you’re in it, it’s not easy.”

So after a long and grueling, albeit rewarding, campaign, what’s next for him?

“Well the campaign’s over now,” Ghani said. “I’m looking at different things and trying to stay connected with the non-profit world, and trying to help non-profits use data to become more efficient and better.”

Ghani is one of a small number of tech wizards in a world that is becoming increasingly data oriented. If the 2008 campaign was about charisma and hope, the 2012 campaign was about science and data. Gone are the days when political campaigns were an art form run by people who played by gut instinct.

Now it’s run by people like Rayid Ghani.

The author is an assistant multimedia producer at Dawn.com.