If you’ve yet not discovered Alexis Madrigal’s fascinating Atlantic article (#longread), describing “how a dream team of engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google built the software that drove Barack Obama’s re-election,” stop right now and read it.
In essence, a team of technologists developed for the Obama campaign a robust, in-house platform that integrated a range of capabilities that seamlessly connected analytics, outreach, recruitment, and fundraising. While difficult to construct, the platform ultimately delivered, enabling a degree of logistical support that Romney’s campaign reportedly was never able to achieve.
It’s an incredible story, and arguably one with significant implications for digital health.
(1) To Leverage The Power of Data, Interoperability Is Essential
Data are useful only to the extent you can access, analyze, and share them. It increasingly appears that the genius of the Obama campaign’s technology effort wasn’t just the specific data tools that permitted microtargeting of constituents, or evaluated voter solicitation messages, or enabled the cost-effective purchasing of advertising time. Rather, success flowed from the design attributes of the platform itself, a platform built around the need for inoperability, and guided by an integrated strategic vision.
It’s no secret that the greatest problem in health IT may be the challenge of interoperability, and the difficulty of sharing and accessing information in an easily actionable way (see here and here). It also seems apparent that without seamless communication, and a clear view of what each end-user wants and requires, many of the powerful benefits of big data are certain to be lost. It’s possible that established and emerging standards will be enough to enable robust sharing; if not, it’s easy to envision how a platform that successfully integrates a range of mediocre functionalities might easily drive out competitors offering more elegant but “stand-alone” functionalities.
(2) Drive Key Enabling Technologies, Don’t Wait For Them
As companies watch new and potentially important technologies come down the pike, they’re faced with an important decision: do they try to develop the capability internally (build), or should they purchase it from a vendor (buy)? It’s clear from Madrigal’s article that a pivotal decision made by the Obama campaign was to build, and to recruit the world’s best developers to their organization.
I’ve previously argued that while big pharmas might benefit from this exact strategy – recruiting A-league players in big data — they instead seem prepared to watch from the sidelines, content for now to outsource this capability to large vendors. Although ostensibly safe, this sounds suspiciously similar to the campaign strategy adopted by another seasoned corporate executive; his story did not end well. While it would be imprudent to generalize from this one example, and it would be equally foolish to believe you can or should build everything from scratch, the contrasting campaign decisions, and fates, certainly highlight the risk of waiting for key enabling technology, rather than driving its development.
It’s clear that while the team of engineers started the campaign project with mad tech skills, they were elevated and inspired by the sense they were working on something important and meaningful. “They learned,” wrote Madrigal, “what it was like to have — and work with people who had – a higher purpose than building cool stuff.”
It’s hard to imagine a more compelling purpose than using digital technologies to improve health.
David Shaywitz is co-founder of the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH) in Boston. He is a strategist at a biopharmaceutical company in South San Francisco. You can follow him at his personal website. This post originally appeared in Forbes.