More Bad News with Kousha

Early this summer I mentioned a fellow Kennedy School student, Kousha, who is doing awesome work to create his own weekly show, Bad News. Kousha is still on a roll and has continued to refine his episodes. Lately, Kousha has adjusted the show to focus on one topic of interest. Recent topics include Ferguson, student loans, and ISL. He’s also doing more dancing at the end of each episode, and my mission is to have him teach me how to moonwalk this semester.

I wanted to share a few as a follow up to the first post on the show. Hope you enjoy as much as I do.  And if you do, subscribe to his YouTube channel to see each Friday’s episode.

Philippines Part 2

Several Filipinos we met with throughout our trip spoke about the importance of family in their culture. Whether it was children in indigenous communities not moving away because of family ties or a reference to family ties being stronger than other identities – like political party, religious affiliation, or nationality.

Everyone we met also talked about the traffic. Metro-Manila’s roadways are crowded with cars, trucks, jeepneys, motorbikes, and pedestrians. Traveling a few miles can regularly take hours. So our group spent a good amount of time in our van, and, as a newcomer to the Philippines, I found this to be a vantage point for exploring the beauty of Manila and its residents. Several images I captured throughout our trip came from our van window. Here are just a few.

We had the chance to advance the conversation about Metro-Manila beyond traffic when we met with Vice Mayor Joy of Quezon City (the neighboring city of Manila). Her team walked us through their current initiatives in housing, disaster response and waste maIMG_4108nagement. Each also spoke about the challenges of their work in a ever-growing city with a large population living in sub-standard housing. I will note that listening to a city official discuss disaster management for earthquakes, volcanoes, and typhoons that all threaten the location where you are meeting is a fairly nerve-wracking experience, and one that will quickly make you appreciate the challenges these leaders face in protecting their population (I’ll stick with the snowstorms of the Northeast instead).

Later that evening, we had a really amazing opportunity to visit with several colleagues of the late President Cory Aquino (wife of Ninoy Aquino) in her childhood home. Several staff from the Aquino foundation also joined us for dinner and conversation. The group talked about the perseverance and decision-making of Cory Aquino and their on continued commitment to a better Philippines. The entire conversation was moving, and it was capped off by a beautiful performance from two of the younger staff members from the foundation. Even Philip joined in on the singing after a lot of group prodding and we luckily have photographs to prove it.

We also discovered that teenagers in the Philippines regularly carry around a really long stick that holds a camera phone far enough way from you to take a high quality “selfie.” At first, we didn’t understand what the groups of girls were doing holding a large stick out in front of them, but eventually we figured out they were taking group selfies with them. Of course, we needed one. So on our free day, Sean made the sacrifice and got one for the group (read himself). We then found endless opportunities to use it throughout the rest of the trip.

We also got to try “halo-halo” or mix-mix on our free day. IMG_4172Halo-halo takes shaved ice, sweetended condensed milk, some sort of jello, syrups, ice cream, and even fruits or red beans and mixes them all together in a sort of bizarre milkshake. Yes.

The next day we hopped on an airplane and headed south for 3 days in Culion. More to come on the island’s beautiful beaches, immeasurable hospitality, and snorkeling over a Japanese war ship.


Philippines Part 1

No better time to write about a trip than when you are still jet lagged from the journey. For the last 11 days I have been traveling (through slow, chaotic traffic jams) across the Philippines with 9 students from the Kennedy School. The trip was led by a group of students including the one-of-a-kind Philip Dy, an HKS student from the Philippines. We spent a large portion of our trip meeting with non-profits and service organizations located in both metro Manila and Culion, a small island community in a province south of Manila.Screenshot 2014-09-01 08.14.22

The trip marked my first time traveling to Asia and my first flight longer than 6 hours. In total, the flights from Boston to Chicago to Hong Kong and then Manila span a time frame longer than 24 hours. While the trip there went smoothly enough, Tom will tell you I’ve been a basically dysfunctional human for the last 2 days trying to adjust to Boston’s timezone.

On August 20th a handful of students all arrived in Manila’s NinoyIMG_4008 Aquino International Airport – named for a national hero and former Senator that was assassinated  in 1983 for opposing the Martial Law governed the state until the mid 1980s. His wife, Cory Aquino, became president after Ninoy’s death spurred a national movement for democracy in the Philippines.

We arrived around 2 in the morning ready for some much needed shut eye. Instead,  we were greeted by a spread of food prepared by Bernice’s mom (Philip’s mother-in-law). She fixed us a porridge which, if I remember correctly (as this point my lack of sleep was not helping my memory), is a late night snack Filipinos love. She laid out dishes with hard boiled eggs, scallions, shredded chicken, dried pork, dried mini shrimp, garlic, and fried tofu. She also prepared milk fish (Bernice’s favorite) and another pork dish for us. The meal of just the beginning of Bernice and her mom making us feel like we were part of their family. She later bought us souvenirs and helped us navigate the overwhelming seafood selections at the dampa.

This would not be the last time we were greeted unexpectedly by food. Filipinos basically eat 5 meals a day – breakfast, miryenda, lunch, miryenda, and dinner – with miryenda being the word for snack. Almost all meetings throughout our trip had some sort of food whether a KFC sandwich or fried bananas (yum).

After our late night meal at Bernice’s home, we were off to the Cenacle Retreat House where we would stay during our time in Manila. The retreat house is run by the Cenacle Sisters and is located close to the Jesuit university that both Philip and Bernice attended. Staying in such a peaceful place gave us a welcomed change from the hustle of metro-Manila. IMG_4151During our first full evening in Manila, we had dinner with HKS alumni that live in Manila and are working on a range of issues – education, public revenue, and law. We went to bed on our first night with full bellies and feeling incredible welcomed in the Philippines.

The next day we traveled to the University of Ateneo – where Philip attended undergrad – and met with staff and students from a study abroad program run through the University of San Fransisco. Instead of a traditional study abroad experience, students in the Casa Bayanihan program take classes while also doing extensive service work in the community. We got to visit the community they live in near campus and have lunch with all the participating students. I particularly enjoyed the conversation I had with a young, Filipino woman who joined the program after finishing her studies at Ateneo. We talked about the bakery her parents ran in her home province, her quest to use her business major to create larger good in her country, and her growing interest in hiking.

After lunch, we headed to old-town Manila for a tour of the Intramuros – meaning within the city walls. We walked through beautiful historic homes and the church and monastery of San Agustin. Close to 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic as a result of Spanish colonization in the 1800s. Unfortunately, the church and several other buildings were damaged during World War II because Japanese troops were located in the area. While we enjoyed the tour of old Manila, our tour guide may have stood out beyond the buildings. He referred to Jesus as “Mr. JC” and described how Filipinos told the Spanish “Hey, we are sick of you,”  when resisting Spanish rule. There were many grad students giggling at his presentation style, but he definitely kept us entertained.

Next, we stopped by the Golden Mosque – constructed in the 1970s as a welcoming gift to Libyan President, Muammar al-Gaddafi, although his trip never occurred.

And finally, after a long day, it was time to EAT again. We drove across town where we met Bernice’s mom and brother at a dampa for dinner. Dampas are large, open air fish markets located within a complex of restaurants. You pick the seafood you want from the market and then walk it over to the restaurant of your choice for dinner. We were completely overwhelmed by the all the choices, so Philip and Bernice’s family took charge of the selections while we headed up to a private room with a karaoke machine. We ended up with enough food to feed 50 people – crabs, shrimp, oysters, clams, squid, more squid, and individual coconuts to drink. The dampa was a really amazing experience even though we had enough leftovers for a week.

Our next day brought another trip to Anteneo, a lunch with the vice mayor of Quezon City, and – most important of all – the group’s discovery of the “Selfie Stick”. I’ll leave you with a Selfie Stick teaser. More to come.IMG_4099


A Post with Echo & Co.

A few weeks ago I wrote on some of the work I’m doing with Echo & Co. throughout the summer. Last week the company celebrated their 10th anniversary and a merger with Teal Media. They also launched a beautiful, engaging new site to complement the celebration. This week, they did another pretty exciting thing in my book… let me author a post on their blog.

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Equally awesome is that I also now have a user profile on their site, which I think are wonderful little introductions to each staff member. You can see the rest of the team and learn fun facts about each of  them here.

Screenshot 2014-07-16 16.59.04

Dog Days for Charlie the Poodle

Cambridge is heating up. The poodle is napping on cold floors, and the dog days of summer are upon us. IMG_3287As I’ve written about too much already, we live in a terrifically dog-friendly area. Between the dog parks, vet, and groomer around the corner, Charlie has all he could ask for without having to get in the car. Which also saves Tom and me from the car full of poodle drool that inevitably comes from putting him in the 4runner whether it be for 15 minutes or 15 hours (we’ve done both).

We did, however, have to put him in the car to head to North Hampton, NH a few weeks ago. But it was totally worth it to see Charlie romp around the beach and play chicken with the waves.

Back at home, Charlie has also made friends with Tudor, a 5-year-old boy. Tudor lives across the street from our park and religiously comes out to play whenever he spots Charlie from his window. Tudor loves to ask the other dog owners at the park “How old is your dog?” and then proudly tell them that Charlie is only 1 1/2 years old. Charlie chases Tudor around the park with his bike or soccer ball, and eagerly awaits Tudor’s shorter-than-usual toss of his tennis ball.

Even though Charlie gets lots of play time at the park with friends like Tudor, I’m also gone most of the day now because of my internship with EchoDitto. Lucky for us, EchoDitto loves a good pooch party in the office from time to time. Last week, both Charlie and Rascal, Nicco’s westie, spent the day in the office together. Charlie didn’t stop exploring the office or even sit down until about 3:30 in the afternoon, so all the Ditto’s got a bit more of Charlie than they probably anticipated. But we made it through the day, and he only shredded 3 Wikipedia stress balls (in case you forgot it is a tech firm, that will confirm it). He also got invited back. I, however, was exhausted after monitoring him and working all day and do not have plans for him to return in the near future. Overall, Charlie gets a B+ for office etiquette given he is a less-than-2-year-old poodle.

It’s pretty great to be a poodle AND an Allin. You get to travel, make new friends, and enjoy a comfortable work-life balance. Some days when Charlie is really lucky he even gets a few cheerios or an ice cube. Maybe as the dog days of summerIMG_3239 heat up even more he’ll get multiple ice cubes.

Until Next Time.

My Summer of Tech

Two of the abnormal things about going back to graduate school are 1) I get a real summer again and 2) I go back to “summer associate” status. Luckily, the team at EchoDitto – where I’m spending May, June, and July – are an exceptional bunch working on compelling, meaningful projects. About 12 people work in EchoDitto’s Somerville office with the rest based in D.C. or scattered across the country. This July marks the firm’s 10th anniversary.IMG_3148

EchoDitto describes itself on its site saying “We empower leading organizations to have a greater impact through the creative use of new technologies. We design participatory campaigns and build technical tools that enable individuals and organizations to make the world a better place.” For me, that means spending each day with a team that is not only digitally capable and savvy but also building careers with an eye to generating a positive impact in the world. We also have the option to get Boston Burger every Friday for lunch and the office is charlie-the-poodle friendly – unexpected perks of the office.

If you are interested in the work they’ve done to build sites for progressive organizations and institutions, I would definitely recommend checking out some of their profiles. Some of my favorites are Project AWARE and the community portal for divers we built, and a site for thousands of events across the country connected to Food Day (mark your calendars for October 24th).

Earlier this month, I also got the chance to travel to NYC for the Personal Democracy Forum, one of the nation’s largest gatherings of people interested in using digital tools for social good, public services or political action.

I got to geek out at talks by Rebecca Mackinnon, An Xiao Mina, and Anthea Watson Strong. And discovered some resources I will absolutely take advantage of in the future – like civic participation platform Loomio.

I particularly loved Loomio’s story of coming into formation. The New Zealand-based site was started by a team of developers interested in creating a better method for participants in the region’s Occupy movement to communicate and make decisions. Today, clubs, government agencies and coalitions worldwide are using Loomio to make collective decisions. I snagged a screenshot from them to give you a sense of some of their tools, but I recommend checking out their site if you are currently looking for a way to better organize many different groups and their opinions. Screenshot 2014-06-22 15.11.21
To complete my summer of tech, I’m also taking a Coursera course through the University of Michigan on Python programming language. For those of you who are interested, the next section of the course doesn’t start again til October, but as someone with limited programming experience, I can attest that it is very accessible. So go ahead! Click on some of these links and start thinking about how tools in the digital space can make this world a better place.

Until Next Time.



#allin for the World Cup

My heart is still a little heavy from Portugal’s last second goal for a tie vs the US last night. However, that said, I could not be more proud of the quality of play from our team. It was a fantastic game to watch…one that had Tom and I jumping off the couch and screaming loud enough for people to hear us down the street through open windows. My heart is only heavy because I felt like we really deserved, and had an opportunity to, win.

Tom and Nick on the edge of their seats during US v Portugal.

Tom and Nick on the edge of their seats during US v Portugal.

But fear not! Nate Silver and his blog give us a 75.8% chance of advancing out of the group stage. Here are all the potential scenarios for how the US can advance. I’m already ready for Thursday…

Our World Cup Hashtag

It goes without saying that Tom and I are excited about Adidas’ chosen hashtag for the World Cup. “#allin or nothing” is about as close to perfection as you can get for us. Their “Wake Up Call” ad brings some goosebumps and a chance to feel the excitement of soccer and the once-every-4-year spirit of the World Cup that can seep into your heart…especially since it features Argentina’s Messi, and I keep replaying his stoppage time goal v Iran from this weekend.

Screenshot 2014-06-22 08.58.34

Showing my advertizing ignorance, I was particularly proud that I was “clever” enough to come up with the “allin”concept before adidas. All the way back in 2013, was born. However, my ego was quickly deflated when I realized adidas launched their “all in” ads in 2011 and have been showing ads under the tagline for many years (time for a cable subscription). So while I’m not as innovative as I thought, at least our friends are thinking of us as “#allin” flashes across their tv screens and minds.

IMG_3383We’ve had a ball (ha) watching the World Cup this year. Last Monday, we saw the US slip passed Ghana with our favorite bar tenders at the Kirkland Tap and Trotter. We had hot dogs and beer to form our American spirit as we watched. They now do a different hot dog every Monday on a pretzel bun, and I’m not willing to say how many different options I’ve already tried. The photo from their Facebook page shows you how awesome they are.Screenshot 2014-06-22 09.42.35

If soccer itself is not your sport, at least there are some fantastic post-goal celebrations you can get on board with… Colombia and Ghana have both made headlines with their full team dances.. a trend I wouldn’t be sad to see more NFL and NBA teams emulate.

Regardless of the fitting hashtag associated with the World Cup, it has been a welcomed addition to our already full summer. We are ready for more weeks of wins and witch doctors but, unfortunately, not Wayne.

I’ll close with a piece of memorabilia from my sister – Emily’s – days of soccer stardom. Enjoy this gem and get ready for Thursday at noon.

Until Next Time.

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One Year Later: 4 Thoughts on Marriage

Three weeks ago Tom and I celebrated our one year anniversary. We opted for a simple dinner at one of our favorite Cambridge spots, Cafe Sushi, because May was a month full of fantastic, foodie visitors, and sushi sounded like the best path to getting back to our healthier selves. But the last month has given us several instances to reflect on our first married year and our hopes for the future. One of my dearest high school friends, Will Baucom, proposed to his fiance while staying with us in Boston, and last weekend we traveled back to Jackson, Mississippi for Tom’s close friend, Will Fontaine’s, wedding (lots of Wills).

We’ve been through a lot in our first year as Allins: Moving from Mississippi to Massachusetts, Completing one year of courses at Harvard, Starting a new job at Full Contact, Surviving car registration at the Massachusetts RMV, Cooking our first Thanksgiving meal, and Keeping our poodle alive for one more year. We have also been fortunate to share the year with friends new and old from Jackson and NYC to London and Nairobi.

I’ve learned a great deal through one year of marriage with Tom in Somerville. As final thoughts, here are 4.

1) Contrary to previous belief, I CAN sleep with the light on.

I go to bed at 10:30 each night (okay, okay most nights I don’t make it past 10). Even as a graduate student, I rarely stay up. Tom, however, would much rather be up past midnight. Tom has learned to tolerate my early bed time in exchange for my tolerance of his late night internet exploring or reading. This has been especially critical for Tom who committed to reading 12 great works of American fiction this year as his New Year’s resolution.

2) Someday, I will be the parent that deals with sick children, not Tom.

Dogs make messes. Big dogs make big messes. I’m the clean up woman for those messes and will continue to be. Enough said.

3) Marriage is different.

I know this might not be true for everyone, but it has been true for me. I’ve always been surprised when people are asked how it feels to be married and they say it is the same. (I’ve also always felt it was completely wrong … why would so many be fighting for marriage equality if it was “the same?”) Our day to day lives feel similar, but I certainly approach each decision with Tom differently than before we were married. There is now a long-term future to be considered, and each small action we take towards one another ultimately shapes our relationship and the life we build…and while that might not be unique to marriage, it does come from making a life-long commitment to one another.

4) Being an An Allin is Awesome.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I get to be married to Tom Allin. I know that half of you just rolled your eyes, but I can still remember how excited I was to talk to Tom in the fall of 2008 in social dance class. I’m grateful that I get to live my life with someone who continues to be a pleasure each day we experience together. Tom has also taught me a great deal about sacrifice and patience this year by making the transition with me to Boston for my graduate program. I hope someday soon I can do the same for him.

Until Next Time…

Dancing Into Spring

It has been a magical few days in Boston. I completed the first year of my Masters program. Temperatures rose above 70 for the first time since November 2013. And two adorable humans came from Jackson, MS to visit. After a long first winter, all three of these things were badly needed in the Allin household.



Even before this week, Tom insisted we start off our spring with Southern style in the best way he knew how – serving up mint juleps at a Kentucky Derby party. Thanks to some fantastic recipe sharing, I headed to the grocery store with a list full of things that normally don’t hold shelf space in our kitchen – mayonnaise, bacon, cheese, more cheese, whipped cream, yellow mustard, and more cheese.

We loaded our dining room table with deviled eggs, Kentucky hot browns, Bourbon balls, pimento cheese, ham biscuits and banana pudding. We had all the mixins for a great afternoon and 120 seconds of horse racing. (My favorite quote of the day from a German Gem was “That’s it?”). Any average Kentucky Derby “fan” knows that the race is more about an excuse to get together than being a knowledgeable viewer. We loved hosting HKS students in our home, and I think Tom decided it will become a Allin-Boston tradition during the years we are transplanted up North.


In case there was any debate, earning a Masters degree is definitely no walk in the park. But after a year full of cramming more knowledge than I thought humanly capable into my noggin, there was cause for celebration – and dancing in the streets.

Rachel and Chris Myers – Jackson celebrities – came in just in time to help us celebrate. Since Rachel is on her way to becoming an exceptional crafter of museum exhibits and welcoming museum environments, we  wandered to the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum to see it’s collection of art and architecture. Not only is it worth the trek from Cambridge, but Harvard students get in free with an ID. We also got to explore the Emerald Necklace and the oldest collection of Victory Gardens in the US nearby the museum.

We also did lots of good eatin’ with the Myers duo. Macaroni and cheese at Trinas Starlite Lounge, cocktails at Drink and Park, and salmon head and mussels at KT&T.

IMG_3042We love having adventurous spirits in town as an excuse to try new things and visit the restaurants we love, and Chris and Rachel absolutely generate group enthusiasm for new experiences and good food. We treasured the few days we got to spend with them, ate too much and laughed just enough. We can’t wait to get them back to Boston for another visit and can’t wait for the other southern visitors that head our way this May.

It’s gonna be a great summer.

Until Next Time!


The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

“I wish God gave green noses to undecided voters, because between now and election eve, I’d work only the green noses. I wish God gave purple ears to nonvoters for my candidate on election eve, because on election day I’d work only the purple voters.”

Matt Reese in The Victory Lab

For the last several weeks, I’ve been combing through Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Issenberg traces the recent history of integrating data into political campaigns. The book features both the conflict that data sometimes creates amongst the political establishment and the value it brings to understanding voters and potential voters alike.

The sheer size and analytical depth of the 2012 presidential campaigns are often referred to in mass media in broad terms. But Issenberg and Jonathan Atler, author of The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, provide a more detailed view of the analytical rigor of the Obama campaign. Atler details that to collect information on voters in contentious states, the campaign would place “4,000 to 9,000 phone calls a night. The calls, which eventually numbered nearly one million, sampled ten times as many voters a night as a standard pollster surveyed in a week.”[1] The Obama team had to have the technical capacity to store the results of these calls and the staff capacity to interpret the results into a strategy for allocating resources daily.

Beyond polling potential voters, the campaign also developed detailed profiles of their supporters and would-be supporters. Data collected by the Obama campaign could make promotional materials like television ad buys exceptionally targeted. Atler describes that the campaign “could calculate that less likely young voters in Madison, Wisconsin, watched college football, or undecided older voters in Toledo watched Judge Judy, or that persuadable veterans in Tallahassee watched the History Channel.” With this knowledge in hand and message testing to different audiences, the campaign could focus their messages to very specific, desired populations.

But advanced data and targeting are relatively recent phenomenon in presidential politics, and many state and local campaigns still struggle to generate the resources or the capacity to hone messages to desired audiences as described above. Issenberg takes readers through some of the key evolutions that have led to the data integrated into political races today, not all of which are political in nature.


While not the only dates captured in the The Victory Lab, I chose these not because they are necessarily the most significant people or times, but because I think they give a sense of how far data and targeting has come in the world of politics since the 1960s.

1962: The U.S. Postal Service rolls out zip codes that “split the country into 36,000 zones and assigns each a 5 digit code.” For-profit businesses now have a new geographic boundary by which to compile customer data and begin to be sort individual preferences at this smaller geographic level.
1974: The National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) pushes the norm of how voters are categorized in efforts to move more voters to the polls on election day. The NCEC maps political geography through 3 categories:
  1. “A democratic performance index” which predicts how well a democrat would perform on the ballot in a particular precinct;
  2. “A persuasion percent” which shows how much an area fluctuated between parties; and
  3. “A GOTV percent” which measures how much the voter turnout fluctuated from election to election.
These data points were all crafted down to the precinct level and soon adopted as a key tool of the Democratic National Committee.
1980s and 1990s: Hal Malchow, a Mississippian and  political consultant,  starts what we now call A/B Testing  through snail mail. Malchow “would send out slightly different letters to multiple groups of recipients, and then identify which brought in the most [campaign] money.” As Malchow aims to integrate his work into large-scale campaigns, he bumps up against the political consulting establishment which he believes is threatened by this new technique. Malchow voices his frustration with this politics saying it is “only industry in the world where there is no market research.”
1990: The first time U.S. Census releases data by “block groups” for the entire nation, not just urban areas. This gives researchers and campaigns the ability to see characteristics like poverty, income, race, household size, or nationality for much smaller areas, and campaigns begin thinking about how to use this data to inform strategies for voter turnout and voter registration.
1999: Yale University researchers, Alan Gerber and Donald Green, run randomized trials to determine the most effective methods of voter turnout. They find that visiting the home of a registered voter is much more influential in getting them to vote than phone calls or postcards. Issenberg mentions that this shakes up the consulting world – particularly for consultants making their money in phone or mail outreach.
2002: Alex Gage further pushes the use of data in campaign targeting. As a political pollster, he is pulled in for Mitt Romney’s race for Massachusetts governor. For several years before 2002, Gage had worked to link consumer data with more traditional data in voter files. Put together these sources made for a more robust picture of voters. In 2002, Gage creates a “rank-order of the [Massachusetts’] nearly 2 million independents based on their openness to Romney.” He discovers that people ranking high on this independent conversion scale were also HBO subscribers, and the campaign then “sends brochures to everyone shown in [his] files to be a premium-cable subscriber.”

These evolutions in political data highlight several themes: the tension of bringing new technologies into an established campaign environment, the roll of data in generating increasingly refined profiles of voters, and the value of randomized trials in proving the effectiveness of different campaign strategies.


Of these self-selected highlights, I find those that detail new sources of public data – the formation of zip codes or more refined Census groups – the most interesting because I regularly used public data for advocacy and education on state policy issues in Mississippi. The emergence of block data from the U.S. Census has been really helpful for bringing life to issues because advocates are now able to visually depict a trend across areas of interest like cities or counties.

One of the first ways I saw Census data mapped in a compelling way for issue advocacy was at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. In the mid-2000s, the Center wanted to decrease the prevalence of payday lenders in high poverty areas because of the high cost of borrowing through these businesses. To illustrate the overlap between poverty concentrations and payday lender locations, the Center pulled local level poverty data from the Census and color-coded the neighborhoods by their poverty concentration (see red, yellow and green below). The map provides a more persuasive way of communicating the idea that high poverty communities have closer access to a high cost loan product than the lower cost, more traditional loan products of other financial institutions. The Census Bureau also provides the map templates for the data for free on their site, making the construction of maps even more accessible to individuals and non-profits.

Screenshot 2014-04-08 12.01.37

Block data is also helpful to non-profits or local agencies that provide services to communities in need. If an afterschool program targets one particular neighborhood, that program can start to understand the financial situation of households in their area through looking at Census data. By accessing block data online, non-profits can answer questions like: Approximately what portion of families in our service area rent their homes? What is the average household income of households? How many families are two-parent households? Or What portion of homes in this neighborhood have a car? By reviewing this data, non-profit leaders can then start to narrow down potential services that would be important to their community and then follow up with residents directly through surveying of their own.

So while Census data has surely provided a new layer of information on voters and non-voters, it has also provided a way for leaders of cities, non-profits or state agencies to assess the needs of communities as well.


The revolutionaries are taking a politics distended by television’s long reach and restoring it to human scale – delivering, at times, a perfectly disarming touch of intimacy. – The Victory Lab

As the era of data in politics continues in the early 2000s, Issenberg follows Alex Gage’s work targeting independents and persuadable Democrats on the 2002 Romney campaign for governor, and then traces Gage’s transition to the 2004 Bush presidential campaign where he incorporates similar micro-targeting strategies. By merging both consumer and voter data, Gage and others could determine the characteristics of voters likely to vote for Bush and then seek out non-registered or non-voting residents with similar characteristics. Campaigns could also increasingly customize messages on TV, through mail, or through canvassing that they believed matched the issue preferences of particularly individuals.

Issenberg details that by the late 2000s, political consultants on the other side of the isle were also crafting tools of their own. In 2007, a team of political consultants, labor leaders and researchers created the Analyst Institute, an institution with the aim of merging research on behavioral science on voting with democratic campaign strategy. At a similar time, Catalist also joined forces with democratic races. The formation of both institutions signaled that data in politics was both profitable and increasingly demanded.

President Obama’s 2012 election campaign used the work of consulting partners like these, but also had a large, in-house team of staff members focused on digital strategy. Atler notes that “The [Obama] digital team assembled in Chicago was in fact three teams – Digital, Tech, and Analytics – with interrelated and often competitive functions.” There was a large difference between the Romney and Obama campaigns in theirScreenshot 2014-04-07 18.02.09 budget for digital, and that showed in outcomes measures like their number of donors and the size of the campaigns’ email lists. During the 2012 race, President Obama’s campaign signed up 16 million email list members to Mitt Romney’s estimated 3 million.[2] The Obama campaign also reported four times more donors than the Romney campaign in 2012 – 4.4 million to 1.1 million respectively (see graphic).

The Obama campaign’s decision to invest heavily in analytics also created a culture of message testing that ultimately led to the strengthening of their online fundraising efforts. An online report by Engage Research, “Inside the Cave: the definitive report on the keys to Obama’s success in 2012,” features an example of an Obama campaign email with the subject line “I will be outspent” that raised overScreenshot 2014-04-07 20.43.54 $2.6 million dollars. A remarkable finding on its own; but the email made an even more compelling case for A/B testing of subject lines. Had the campaign sent out their lowest performing email subject line that day, they would have raised $2.2 million less. Examples like these underscore the potential consequences of messaging for any national or state campaign.

Both Issenberg and Atler point to the Obama campaign’s efforts to hire staff from outside of the traditional political campaign environment as critical to developing a more competitive digital strategy. Innovators from Google, Threadless, Accenture and others brought a new lens to the Obama campaign that many deem instrumental to the campaign’s success.


As you read through Issenberg’s account of how campaigns are becoming more sophisticated in their use of individual information, it’s hard not to think about how data of campaigns fits into a U.S. political system that has a widening gap between public leaders on the left and the right.

Tom Patterson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, often emphasizes in his American politics course that the current partisan divide in our nation’s politics has not always been the case (important for someone like me with the political memory of less than 20 years). Below, a slide from his course uses data from the Pew Research Center to highlight that the way Democrats and Republicans view particular issues – the size of government, social safety nets, and equal opportunity – is now (red bar) more divided than it was 25 years ago (blue bar).

 Screenshot 2014-04-08 13.04.05

Patterson has also shown how our media outlets increasingly attract politically divided audiences, from MSNBC and the Daily Show on the left to Fox and Rush Limbaugh on the right.[3] Patterson’s slide below reveals that 80% of Fox News views are conservatives and close to 80% of MSNBC viewers are liberal.

Screenshot 2014-04-08 13.01.17

While these divisions in perspectives and TV viewership may not be particularly surprising to some, it does beg the question of how a national political dialogue that becomes increasingly divided affects our political campaign environment. More particularly, it is worth reflecting on how an increasing division between two parties potentially influences how effective data can be in helping target and win over uncommitted or independent voters. If both parties take positions on further ends of the spectrum from one another, and the political dialogue becomes even more contentious, does recruiting independents or non-voters get harder? If it gets harder, does that increase the need for a political strategy that is beyond what consumer and voter data can supply?

Some of Issenberg’s thoughts in the MIT Technology Review reveal that the level of data we have on individuals may be good enough to transcend the national rift between parties by persuading individuals through local connections. Issenberg quotes David Simas, the Obama campaign’s director of opinion research, as saying: “What [data] gave us was the ability to run a national presidential campaign the way you’d do a local ward campaign. You know the people on your block. People have relationships with one another, and you leverage them so you know the way they talk about issues, what they’re discussing at the coffee shop.”

However valuable a local touch is in campaigns, I would be willing to bet than an increasingly divided political environment and the gridlock in Washington, D.C. are shaping the number of independent or non-voting residents in this country. I would also predict that voter apathy may be a barrier to victory that is harder for data and analytics to resolve in 2014 and 2016.

Until Next Time,


Note: This post is an assignment for Nicco Mele’s Harvard Kennedy School course: “From to Obama 2012: Digital Strategy in Political Campaigns” it reviews Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab and reflects on topics covered in class.


[1] Atler, Jonathan. 2013. The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Simon and Schuster. New York, NY.

[2] Engage Research. Inside the Cave: The definitive report on the keys to Obama’s success in 2012.

[3] Slide taken from Dr. Thomas Patterson’s February 6th, 2014 Kennedy School class lecture on Congress and political parties. Data from the Pew Research Center.