Rayid Ghani (SCS’01), one of the first CMU Machine Learning graduates, played an instrumental role in last year’s U.S. presidential election. He was the Obama campaign’s chief scientist. Estimating that the campaign made contact with about 135 million people, Ghani says he and his team used the data to better engage volunteers, increase donations, and ensure voter turnout. Many experts attribute President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney to this use of data analysis and applied social strategy.
How did you become involved with the Obama campaign?
I was in a research lab in the Chicago area doing data mining, machine learning research, which I’d been doing for about 10 years, and I was sort of getting tired. I loved what I did, but I didn’t see any social impact. I wanted to connect things that I cared about with the things that I’m good at. I cared about social problems like education, health care, and energy; and what I was good at was using data to help make better decisions. Before I even had a chance to really talk to anyone, the campaign approached me because they’d heard about me leaving my position. They were just starting to build the campaign and told me it was really going to be data driven, so it was an ideal fit for me.
What was an average day like during the campaign?
Most days were very much like typical office days—meetings, status updates, work … the analytics team worked with every department on the campaign … the closer we got to the election, the longer the days lasted, often up to 2, 3, 4 in the morning and sometimes all night.
How would you assess your involvement in the campaign’s success?
I was part of a team that was critical in helping the campaign use data more efficiently … make more effective decisions. We helped raise more money, recruit more volunteers, be more effective at persuading and getting voters to turn out, and overall be a more efficient and effective campaign.
What surprised you about your work?
I knew, but had not experienced, until my work on the campaign, how passionate people were about policy and about the direction of the country…. I saw that passion converted into action, which was very humbling and motivating.?
—as told to Lisa Kay Davis (DC’09)