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May 31, 2013

Obama Big Data Team Reforms as Civis Analytics

Isaac Lopez

A lot has been written about the data savvy of President Obama’s re-election campaign and how it changed the game from gut-level guesswork to data-driven campaigning. Much of the direction of this effort was reportedly originally based on the counsel of Google’s Eric Schmidt, who it was revealed this week has made an investment to keep the Obama Campaign’s analytics group, previously known as “the Cave,” together.

The newly formed company, Civis Analytics, will be headed by 30-year-old data wiz, Dan Wagner, who is often credited as having produced Obama’s 5 million-vote margin of victory through his bottom-up analytics strategy that let the data do the directing. Businessweek reports that the company will be staffed by two dozen of his former employees during the campaign, with ownership being shared by both the team and their angel investor, Schmidt.

Gabriel Burt, the Lead Analytics Engineer for the 2012 Obama campaign will serve as the company’s CTO. Burt has a background developing web and analytics software at Novell and IBM, as well as work during college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the Nuclear Radiation Laboratory, the Institute for Computational Cosmology, NASA, and the NCSA.

During the election campaign, the group developed analytic models in which they ran over 65,000 simulations each night to project who was winning in battleground states. Armed with voter contact data, they would make as many as 9,000 calls in a night to measure broad public opinion in order to develop statistical models (including social networks) that they would then use for highly targeted campaign efforts, leveraging a network of volunteers.

“Thousands of staff and millions of volunteers from across states and backgrounds spoke to millions of their fellow Americans,” says the company website. “The strategy of the campaign was built by the voters we spoke to, and analytics was the bridge. From millions of data points, we constructed the most accurate voter targeting models ever used in a national campaign. We predicted the election outcome in every battleground state within one point. And our work guided decision-making and resource optimization across the campaign.”

Armed with an undisclosed amount of start-up capital, the company reportedly will use their resources and abilities to help companies, nonprofits, and campaigns to leverage their data for better, data-driven outcomes. Already the organization behind the SATs, The College Board has hired Civis to help them use their analytic prowess to guide high-achieving, low-income students to better schools.

Formally launching this week, the company will have offices in Chicago, IL and Washington, DC.

Related Items:

How Data Analytics is Shifting Politics 

Big Data Assists Obama Win 

Civic Hacking Targets Optimizing Government