Revenge of the Nerds

While everyone spoke of New York Times blogger, Nate Silver’s uncanny, almost witchlike ability to call the election last night, the big winner was the triumph of big data and smart algorithms over gut feel and egos.

Those in tech that have been following Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times broke out in collective high-fives when FiveThirtyEight finished the evening correctly calling 50 out of 50 of the states (besting his 2008 call of 49 out of 50). A baseball statistics geek, Mr. Silver turned to politics and the aggregation of state and national polls as a playground of data ripe for his insights. Traditional polling agencies such as Gallup accuse Nate Silver of standing on their backs and taking all the glory (1 in 5 visits to stopped by to visit FiveThirtyEight). Their complaint is one we’ve heard before, that without their original polling data, Nate would have nothing to aggregate.

Sounds like the what the newspapers used to say about Google News.

But in reality it’s more than just aggregation. Nate Silver and others like him (Votamatic, Princeton Election Consortium) rigorously analyzed what they pulled together and revealed patterns that let the data speak for itself. The accuracy of this approach is a huge wake up call to any pundit that did not take into consideration a data driven approach.

While Nate Silver has put the Science back into Political Science, the data-driven approach to politics is also transforming the sell side, the people that run the campaigns. Time magazine has a fascinating piece on the team that would use modern data aggregation techniques borrowed from online advertising exchanges and e-commerce funnel analysis to segment and target potential supporters of the Obama campaign.

As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.

Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win

With the use of data to predict a winner or run a campaign, it is only natural that news organizations too use data as a way to make a point. Data visualizations are one way to convey information that is now becoming de riguer for any self-respecting newsroom. The Guardian started the Data Blog and the New York Times launched beta620 to experiment with data. Some of the best coverage of the local and state elections  (such as the image below) came from the Los Angeles Times’ Data Desk which I think is a great idea for any media organization, anything that raises data literacy.

Data can be the source of data journalism, or it can be the tool with which the story is told — or it can be both. Like any source, it should be treated with scepticism; and like any tool, we should be conscious of how it can shape and restrict the stories that are created with it. – Data Journalism Handbook



Is this the new Obama phone?

Sectéra Edge

CNN wonders if the Barak Obama’s new phone is the Sectéra® Edge
(love the multiple super-scripts in the product name!) by General Dynamics. Features include a “classified key” that you flip when you want to jump on the Top Sekret network for calls, email, or browsing.

Click on the image above and check out the one-line “trusted display.”  Just the thing to check in on twitter.

Not exactly a svelte device (it’s a little bulkier than a Palm Treo), this thing runs Windows Mobile. Goes with the territory I guess. It’s been reported that the White House PCs are running a six-year old version of Windows.

Oh, and it costs $3,350, without a data plan 😉

UPDATE: Turns out he’s going to get a real BlackBerry after all.

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A Proud Day for All Americans

I flew back from Denver last night on a plane full of Obama volunteers who were working Colorado to get out the vote. The pilot reported during the flight that McCain had conceded and the entire plane erupted in cheers the same way it did in the hotel bar when CNN called Pennsylvania and at the airport bar when Ohio went for Obama.

The excitement is palpable – electricity in the air stuff. Dan, one of the volunteers on the plane, came down the aisle to get everyone’s email address so he could start a mailing list of those that went through this experience together. When I asked him what it was like to knock on doors for the past few days, he said without any hint of sarcasm, it was a “religious experience.”

You never know what you’re going to get when someone opens up that door. Some give you the brush-off, some you need to tell them to put down their beer. But when you tell them that you travelled 1,000 miles because their vote is more important than yours, they listen.

In the end, there are the ones that can’t make it to the polls, their mother isn’t home from work yet, whatever. To those you say, “You know what, I’m going to make this fun for you, this is going to be a fun night.” In the end, they thank you for looking out for them. I don’t care who they vote for, it’s just the act of bonding with a fellow citizen that made it so worth it.

Two buddies of mine went to Nevada to volunteer and one of them, Jonathan Strauss, made a very good point in a post he did on his Blackberry, before the polls even closed. In a post titled, Why we’ve already won, Jonathan said that Barack Obama, even if he loses, has brought us all together in an important way.

I am so glad that we collectively feel this way – Barack has inherited a mess that is going to take everyone’s help to haul us above water again. To be walking into the Oval Office now is more challenging today that it’s been in a long while. But I can’t think of a better person than Barack to represent us abroad and lead us domestically to make things happen. If anyone can call on us to trust him to while we make individual sacrifices for the greater good, it’s Barack Obama.

I read somewhere that what we’ve done by electing a minority as President is the equivalent of the UK electing a Jamaican to lead their country. In one fell swoop we’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and shown the world that we really do stand by our creed that all men are created equal.
I’m really proud to be an American today.

Barack Obama’s Speechwriter is 26

Jon Favreau

I missed this write-up on Jon Favreau, Barack’s head speechwriter, in the New York Times Fashion section last week. He first started writing for Obama when he met him during John Kerry’s campaign back in 2004.

Life was relatively quiet then, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Favreau had some time to hang out. When Mr. Obama’s White Sox swept Mr. Favreau’s beloved Red Sox three games to none in their American League 2005 division series, the senator walked over to his speechwriter’s desk with a little broom and started sweeping it off.

Sounds like they have a good working relationship.

UPDATE : There’s a nice profile of Favreau in the Washington Post. It describes how his life has changed since Obama’s victory and the pressure leading up to writing Obama’s inaguration speech.

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