How a Narwhal API Led to the Obama 2013 Inauguration

Michael Vizard, January 21st, 2013

With President Barack Obama being sworn into office for a second term a lot of thoughts will naturally turn to how narrow his re-election actually was. The president did surprisingly well by carrying a much larger number of swing states than anybody thought possible. But each of those victories only came about because the turnout for the president was much higher than most anyone has expected in those states with the possible exception of the team of programmers that build the social media applications for the Obama for America campaign.

Those applications not only proved crucial in terms of helping get the vote out; they also helped the campaign rapidly raise funds by being able to create social media applications that would target specific interest groups. For example, the programmers working on the campaign had no idea the president was going to announce support for gay marriage. But within hours of the announcement they has created a social media application that was designed to specifically raise funds from the constituency that supports this particular initiative. That would not have been possible without a Narwhal API that credited with making it possible for campaign to build applications that unified multiple data sources, which help identify independent voters that late in the electoral process had still not committed to either candidate.

None of that would have been possible, says Ryan Kolak, Narwhal tech integration lead for Obama for America, if not for a Narwhal API that the programmers had committed to as a standard early on. Kolak says the development of the Narwhal API created a mechanism for accessing a central database that all data sets where integrated with. That made building new applications not only a lot easier; it provided a mechanism through which deploying those applications on top of Amazon Web Services a whole lot easier. In effect, a disciplined approach to building APIs allowed the campaign to overcome traditional DevOps issues that trouble so many IT organizations, which according to Nick Leeper, lead engineer for finance and findraising for Obama for America not only helped get more people to the polls, it made using social media a much more effective tool for raising campaign donations.

While many people have come to appreciate the implications of a new era of E-Politics, what many don’t realize is the crucial role agile programming methodologies played in re-electing the president. For example, the existing of the API made not only easier to build applications, but also completely delete applications features that were not being used or were having an adverse impact on application performance. At the same time, the Narwhal API made it possible to build out an IT operations strategy that would fail gracefully in the event of any disruption in service, thereby allowing that applications to continue to collect donations online even if the backend transaction processing system was offline.

Obviously, a lot of effort went into the campaign to re-elect the president, who as a community organizer from Chicago probably has a greater appreciation of the potential power of social networks. As such, when you add up all the things the Democrat and Republican parties did to get their candidates elected; the thing that clearly stands out most is how successful one was versus the other in terms of using Web programming skills to win that election.

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