How Obama’s campaign used big data to win, and how coke got hacked

Staffers work on computers during a tour of U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election headquarters May 12, 2010 in Chicago.

To help tap financial donors and to get out the vote, we knew the Obama campaign was crunching big data. But, until now, it wasn't very clear how big. Michael Scherer, White House correspondent for Time got an inside-look at the math wizards, behavioral scientists and other data specialists helping to drive the campaign. His access was given on condition -- he not publish anything until it was all over.  

"It was really extensive," says Scherer. "They had an analytics team, for instance, that was five times the size of the one they had in 2008."

Analytics helped the campaign understand both the demographics they had in the pocket, and the ones they needed to target and nudge into the voting booth. How? In part by calling a ton of people, every night, for weeks. Regular polls had a sample of maybe 1,000 people in Ohio. Obama's team was working with data from a list of 29,000.

Take that data, and use it to focus your campaigning efforts, and you'll come up with the kind of difference in turnout some shocked Republicans were witnessing on election night. Example of targeted campaigning? Obama taking questions on the online crowd sourced news aggregator Reddit.

"The senior aides had never heard of that website and didn't know what it was," says Scherer. "Their data people came back to them and said 'look, a lot of our targets are here. Let's put the president on to do one of these interviews." 

Here's some new/old news: Coca-Cola was hacked...back in 2009. I know you're thinking: What, the secret recipe? No, hackers were sneaking through the company's computer systems looking for documents about a proposed purchase of a Chinese beverage company.

Alex Stamos, a security consultant and Chief Technology Officer at Artemus Internet, says this is happening right and left.

"If you break into an oil company and you're able to find out what gas leases they're interested in," says Stamos, "that could be a milti-billion dollar swing in value for one company over another a multi-decade period." 

According to Bloomberg news, which broke the story, Coke did not disclose the attack to its investors, which is as much of a trend as the hacks themselves. With billions at stake, big, publically-traded firms aren't very keen on admitting they've been compromised, even though its material information of the sort stockholders might find useful.

"For every time one of these stories goes pubic, ten times there's been one that has been covered up," he says. "And it's not helping us, because the bad guys are talking to each other."

Stamos says companies need to learn to approach security breaches with a more open source attitude, sharing the knowledge of what happened, if they want to avoid getting clobbered again.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio


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