Ben Popper has a very interesting article at The Verge:
The tech team behind the 2012 Obama campaign has probably received more attention than any political programmers in history. A so-called “dream team of engineers from Facebook, Google and Twitter [who] built the software that drove Barack Obama’s reelection” were extolled in the press for bringing Silicon Valley strategies like Agile development to the normally hidebound process of a political campaign. In the post mortems that followed Obama’s victory, many credited the superiority of the Democrats’ tech team and its famous Narwhal platform, in contrast to the failure of Mitt Romney’s digital efforts, with mobilizing the vote and winning crucial swing states.
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 software itself, much of it will be mothballed,” believes Daniel Ryan, who worked as a director of front-end engineering at OFA. To the techies who supported the campaign, this would be a travesty. The historic work the campaign was able to achieve in such a short time was made possible, Ryan and others argue, because the Obama tech team built on top of open source code — code that has been shared publicly and can be “forked,” essentially edited, by anyone. “The things we built off of open source should go back to the public,” says Manik Rathee, who worked as a user experience engineer with OFA. The team relied on open source frameworks like Rails, Flask, Jekyll and Django. “We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did in one year if we hadn’t been working off open source projects,” says Rathee.
In this sense, the decision to mothball the tech would be a violation of the developers’ ethical principles. But the argument is about more than whether putting the tech back in the hands of the public is the right thing to do. “The biggest issue we saw with all of the commercial election software we used was that it’s only updated every four years,” says Ryan. It was these outdated options that convinced team Obama to build all the campaign tech in-house. If the code OFA built was put on ice at the DNC until 2016, it would become effectively worthless. “None of that will be useful in four years, technology moves too fast,” said Ryan. “But if our work was open and people were forking it and improving it all the time, then it keeps up with changes as we go.”One argument made by the DNC against making OFA’s code open-source is privacy. The campaign collected millions of names, addresses, credit card numbers and, of course, political affiliations. But Rathee says the tech was developed with this in mind. “I understand the need to keep the data sets private, but not the codebase. The work was meant to be modular, so it could go from site to site and be applied to different campaigns without sharing sensitive information.”
Members of the tech team suspect that the real rationale for keeping the code private is much less high-minded. “The gist of it is, they’re concerned that with the superior funding of the Republicans, if they had our software, they’d be unstoppable,” says Ryan.
OFA’s top engineers believe that keeping the code base private would actually do more harm than good to Democrats. . .