Harper Reed’s ideas of the modern use of data

By Nico Mohrmann

10/12/2013 | Harper Reed is a technology expert and entrepreneur. In 2012 he was Chief Technology Officer in Barack Obama’s campaign for re-election. The campaign is considered to be the most technically sophisticated and astute in history. Before his work for the President, Harper Reed advised technology companies and was CTO at the fashion start-up Threadless. In our interview he talks about the huge differences between the USA and Germany.

What can companies learn from Obama’s re-election campaign?

Harper Reed: Technology specialists, analytics experts and designers should be at the executive level. Technology is often neglected at this level. Nobody is interested in it. That will have to change. A company either succeeds in this or fails.

It's always about people.

Big Data played a major role in the re-election campaign. Your team was struggling with faulty address information that you had bought from publishers. At the same time, however, your experience with personal visits to voters in their homes was good. Is the trend moving towards personal contact?

Harper Reed: It’s always about people. This is where “micro-listening” comes into play. For years in online advertising we have had mechanisms to display the right advertising to people: targeting, retargeting, and so on. We applied these techniques to personal interaction with voters. If someone was interested in health policy, then we talked about health policy with him. That is a fundamental difference to standard poster advertising because it results in real interaction. And that is extremely important. That is the future of campaigns and beyond. Lots of people then said: how innovative! But, honestly speaking, we only did something that has been standard in sections of industry for years. And, moreover, some of it would be quite illegal in Germany.

In an interview with “DIE ZEIT” you called German data protection legislation “crazy”. Why?

Harper Reed: No matter how good a law is, it is outdated in five years at the most. More likely two years. That is why the laws in force are just not appropriate any more! It is also crazy that the Germans are worried about data misuse – but they all use Facebook. Of course, you have to understand the historical context in Germany. The big challenge is to prevent the misuse of data on the one hand but to foster innovation on the other. Start-ups in Germany tell me that to be successful globally they would be better off going to California because they can’t do anything here.

Data protection laws should only regulate the use of data by governments.

How would you describe perfectly balanced data protection legislation? Maybe even legislation that is globally binding ...

Harper Reed: Obviously there have to be data protection laws, but they should only regulate the use of data by governments – and not data in general. I concentrate on the positive use and not the negative.

What would your campaign have looked like if it had had to be conducted under German data protection legislation?

Harper Reed: We would probably have left out all of the technology part. And we would still have won. We had the better candidate, great volunteers and, quite simply, the better team.

Watch Harper Reed's keynote at NEXT13