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

Published Jan 21, 2013 03:36am


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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


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Comments (74) Closed

Nadir Jan 22, 2013 04:37am
Ghani, you have done a wonderful job! This is a high time for you to work with Imran Khan to bring a positive change in Pakistan.
M Tassadaq Jan 21, 2013 10:09am
Good job you left Pakistan. Pakistan is better off without such unpatriotic people.
M A Hussain Jan 21, 2013 09:01am
Not in next several generations shall you not be labelled as Pakistanis. That is the way it goes. You may choose to leave an identity, but an identity never leaves you.
Mr.T Jan 22, 2013 12:11pm
Love your comments sir
Zaheer Jan 21, 2013 05:51am
Every now and then a feel good story is written by brilliant and hard working people of Pakistan and this certainly is one of them.Our good work around the world as ex-pats not only recognizes our individual abilities, but is also a collective source of pride for Pakistan at large.
Ahmer Jan 21, 2013 07:59pm
Ghani should now come to Pakistan for at least six months and work with the same dedication to get some honest people elected as MNA.
Imran Jan 21, 2013 08:07pm
Right you are Mr T. For every Paki there a 100 Indians. 1 Paki starving, 100 Indians starving. 1 Paki rapist 100 Indian rapists.1 corrupt Paki, 100 corrupt Indians and the list goes on.
Syed Salman Jan 21, 2013 10:26pm
Digital awareness is pre-requisite to such data driven decision making. Pakistan is years away from where US and EU are in terms of their understanding of how digital works...
Khurram Jan 21, 2013 07:39am
Really what was the point of this piece!! Mountain out of a mole hill...
jee Jan 21, 2013 08:39pm
hi,guys i read all of yours comments ,,try to appreciate and criticised positively dont be harsh and negative ,find positiveness and goodness,appreciate the honesty .
Imad Khan Jan 21, 2013 09:50pm
I was born overseas, lived most of my life overseas, but i still get asked where I am from or what is my background? and I am still proud to say I am a Pakistani
Bilal Khan Jan 21, 2013 07:01am
lets not count on him to help PTI or for that matter Pakistan. I think he is more than happy living his American dream. Way to go buddy
kumar basha Jan 21, 2013 08:50am
so you have convinced me beyond all doubt that pakistanis are brainy people, comfortable working with black and white people, beacon to the entire world. now I seriously think of coming over to pakistan; first i have to become a mussalman; it is easier done as there are helpful websites; but tell me how to become a pakistani; i hear pakistan is a land of equal opportunites etc etc better than the usa.
Cyrus Howell Jan 21, 2013 05:59pm
When the shooting starts you can hit the enemy over the head with your computer key board.
Mazhar Durrani Jan 21, 2013 07:48am
Why people linked us as Pakistani's. We left and embraced a new land as our new country. So stop labeling us as Pakistani's
ANEES Jan 21, 2013 09:15am
We would have loved you to be even born there. Why were you born here? Don't come back.
Snitzky Jan 21, 2013 06:37am
Don't you have a feeling this is too much of exxaggeration and kind of desperation to prove pakistan's importance in American politics?
Liaqat Yousufzai Jan 21, 2013 06:44am
An interesting application area for data mining: Election campaign. Asad Umar should contact Ghani as PTI is more tech-savvy.
Cyrus Howell Jan 21, 2013 05:54pm
abbastoronto Jan 21, 2013 04:11am
Should we be surprised? While our neighbors excel at call centres, Pakistanis go for work that requires brains. Pakistanis share similar psyche with the Americans
Saeed Jan 22, 2013 04:34pm
Why do you call this guy a Pakistani? The media presented Mr. Qadri as a foreigner although he has only been a dual national for two years. This guys must have been American national for years. Stop following double standards and being a hypocrate.
Sherry Manzoor Jan 21, 2013 06:28am
why exactly .. ? ..
Nina Jan 21, 2013 05:20pm
Would you have expressed the same sentiments if he was Indian?
faisal Jan 21, 2013 01:23pm
Lets see what name you will make for yourself for being such an patriot.
akhtar Jan 22, 2013 06:56am
The article is overblown and hyperbolic.
S.A. Hyder, Ph.D. Jan 22, 2013 03:26pm
Ismat Kamal Jan 21, 2013 03:35pm
His best service to Pakistan would be to help Imran Khan and Dr. Quadri in assuming the leadership of the country. Could the author of this article please ask him?
Mullah Pakistani Jan 21, 2013 04:37am
Much ado about nothing!!!!!!!!!!!!
Mazhar Durrani Jan 22, 2013 08:12am
Shahid, I guess you missed the point. That was just a reminder
nlcatter Jan 21, 2013 04:38am
we did data mining in 1972, how many years ago, 40!!! its nothing new, we had slower computers, not as much data but we had working group started before this PAK "expert" was born! typical reporting by DAWN
AHA Jan 21, 2013 03:15pm
I want to feel proud about anything good that is associated with Pakistan. Anything good
M Tassadaq Jan 21, 2013 03:12pm
My comment was in response to an earlier comment not the article itself. Ofcourse every human has a right to take necessary steps for self betterment including leaving one's motherland but never forget your roots.
Mazhar Durrani Jan 22, 2013 08:13am
I am sure you live in middle east.
AHA Jan 21, 2013 03:50am
Pakistan should be proud of Rayid Ghani.
asim Jan 21, 2013 03:56pm
Thank you very much. We are better off with out this brilliance. Stay where you are and they need it more.
Mr.T Jan 21, 2013 06:03am
People should know if there's one Pakistani there's always hundred indian's. You can judge bye support of white house goes with 99% with indian & 1% Pakistani. So don't be so proud, be careful...
Asif Kamal Jan 21, 2013 02:52pm
This is really a good idea for Pakistan as well. I agree with Ghani that first we have to collect data. A great effort and a good idea :)
Pakistani Jan 22, 2013 10:19am
Totally agree with you. One of the victim of such a menace was our Nobel Prize winner Dr. Abdus Salam, whose life's greatest regret was to leave Pakistan, but I'm not surprised by this, afterall what you can expect from a country which ranks 113th among 120 nations of the world (A/c to 2012)
Not that important to the US Jan 22, 2013 04:55am
Big YES! Way too much. Its the same thing that makes Pakistanis believe that there is a global conspiracy to destroy them. No other country (except India of course) thinks this much about Pakistan.
Arif Jan 21, 2013 05:54am
I would suggest him to help Imran Khan, being Pakistani origin he owe that much to Pakistan.
Nazir K Ali Jan 21, 2013 04:49am
What a sea change change from our archaic and banal system of electioneering. Salams
Jawaid Jan 21, 2013 11:40pm
KGS gave him the foundation to get into Carnegie Mellon and learn the subject so well. Well done.
Asif Kahsmiri Jan 21, 2013 09:05am
calm down, those who forget their roots forget who they are.
Nadeem Jan 21, 2013 09:04am
Full marks on sarcasm
anami Jan 21, 2013 05:00am
Yes, definitely. If he inspires a few more Pakistanis to follow in his footsteps, the country would start feeling better about itself.
Rizwan ul hasan khan Jan 22, 2013 11:18am
A great and unique article about how science can influence the political science and election campaign hats off to Mr. Rayid......... living in an atmosphere of no load shading, no strikes, no CNG closure, we wish him to do some thing more better ............... But in Pakistan , in a Feudal system can we really implement this type of data ???????????
Shahid Jan 21, 2013 02:34pm
Hi......I am a Muslim and I know my ancestors were Hindus and I find no shame in that. My ancestors chose to accept the gift of Islam at the hands of Sufis and I am a proud Muslim today. Is that a problem.
Khurram Jan 21, 2013 10:27am
m h kayani Jan 21, 2013 09:06am
Perhaps you should as Mr Ghani to help Pakistan too.
Rafiq Ahmed Jan 21, 2013 11:42am
Aw poor Hindu is feeling insecure
AP Jan 21, 2013 01:29pm
I would think that because he was a part of the team which helped get elected the current president of the current dominant super power ! - but right now as things in Pakistan go (because of us Pakistanis) us should feel proud of any Pakistani who does anything that is constructive - its not like you are spoilt for choice when selecting current Pakistanis to be proud of !
Atif Jan 21, 2013 02:07pm
Chill Mr. M Durrani. I have been living abroad for many many years and so have lots of my friends but we consider ourselves as much Pakistanis (and proud of it) as anyone living in Pakistan. Expats are a huge asset for Pakistan and we should never forget that.
george Jan 21, 2013 11:57am
Asif, please do not stress too much on roots. Where does it all end? Several generations earlier, you were all hindus which you will find difficult to digest.
Khan Jan 22, 2013 02:56am
We should feel proud of being Pakistanis....Anyhow the Ghani idea is great ..In Pakistan a lot of beautiful mind like Mr.Ghani only need sincere efforts to bring forward those minds..
Iftikhar Husain Jan 21, 2013 01:10pm
It is very exciting to read this that a Pakistan origin man is doing very well congratulations.
Mr.Faisal Jan 21, 2013 08:03am
I suggest that use of such skills for a party is not enough beneficial think on a broader pattern and help the people to solve the issues they are facing daily. Salams
Amjad Jan 21, 2013 01:37pm
Now if he could tell Obama to stop the Drones...
Jorge Jan 22, 2013 03:30am
I am pretty sure CIA was watching him like a HAWK thanks to the Afpak reputation.
Sherry Manzoor Jan 21, 2013 10:22am
Pakistan needs ages to reach where the US electoral process is today. He would be kind of redundant here.
Aslam Jan 22, 2013 03:44am
Amen to that, people really have to come out of their little holes and live a life in a larger context i.e humanity.
Mohammed Baluch Jan 21, 2013 11:49am
Kudos to Karachi Grammar School - for the early mentoring provided to Mr. Ghani! If only we could provide such a broad based education to a large number of our youngsters, including those living in rural areas - Pakistan would be well on its way to solving a lot of the problems that currently ail it.
K G Surendran Jan 21, 2013 10:14am
Why do we, in South Asia, imprison individuals to their nationality especially when one has made a mark overseas? As he himself says that it is less about the country than the larger world.......we must all remember that our true nationality is mankind and in an increasingly connected world barriers of race, religion and other prejudices are bound to collapse .
Drone Jan 21, 2013 10:13am
shows a lot where media goes wrong!! they forget the roots, tries to make recency as twisted as possible!
george Jan 21, 2013 11:58am
Nonsense. Patriotism has nothing to do with leaving one's country for the betterment of one's self and family.
Ziad Jan 21, 2013 11:23am
Show me a success story related to Pakistan and I will show you a jealous Indian lurking around the corner! Jan 22, 2013 03:50am
Rayid is always been on top of what he does? Good job Rayid
Omer Jan 22, 2013 03:57am
This article was a breath of fresh air - not only is it well written and well composed on journalistic principles of writing (which are alien to most local jounrnos) but the subject matter was rather intriguing as well. Well done, Salman Haqqi.
Nadeem Jan 21, 2013 09:03am
You should ask this question that why you came to dawn to read this article?
Aslam Jan 22, 2013 03:47am
And the result of your data mining was that country was split.
Edmond Jan 22, 2013 08:56am
It is good to hear people like Rayid doing so well. Well done! However, had this been a person belonging to one of monority communities of Pakistan, there would have hardly been a comment of appreciation expressed. Instead, many would have written in to criticise of a Jewish lobby connection, a stooge of the infidel and the West or a person who has been deliberately pitched by the West to hurt the sentiments of Pakistan. We know of many distinguished Pakistanis ostracised wrongly in the past.
omar khan Jan 22, 2013 07:28pm
Another brain drain !!
Imad Khan Jan 22, 2013 08:59pm
I was born in Melbourne but i live in Sydney now, which if you are not aware are in Australia
Javiro Jan 22, 2013 09:44pm
Did you even understand 10% of what was written in the article?
boobie Jan 23, 2013 12:28am
I am not sure why people have to be so negative. This is a positive story about another Pakistani who has made an impact on the world at large. Be proud of this achievement as he is one of us. Stop the negativity for God's sake!!