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To Open Source Obama's Get-Out-the-Vote Code Or Not? 356

Posted by Soulskill
from the changelogs-we-can-believe-in dept.
An anonymous reader writes "There's a battle brewing amongst Obama's election team. The political folks want to keep the get out the vote code closed source so republicans never get access to it, but the programmers want it open sourced so it can be improved upon. 'In this sense, the decision to mothball the tech would be a violation of the developers’ ethical principles. But the argument is about more than whether putting the tech back in the hands of the public is the right thing to do. "The biggest issue we saw with all of the commercial election software we used was that it’s only updated every four years," says Ryan. It was these outdated options that convinced team Obama to build all the campaign tech in-house. If the code OFA built was put on ice at the DNC until 2016, it would become effectively worthless. "None of that will be useful in four years, technology moves too fast," said Ryan. "But if our work was open and people were forking it and improving it all the time, then it keeps up with changes as we go."'"
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To Open Source Obama's Get-Out-the-Vote Code Or Not?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:02PM (#42660333)

    Ok folks put up or shut up time

    Open source and 'bad people' can use your code. Or keep it closed...

    • Indeed, see for example the heavy use of Linux in North Korea. Information may "want to be free", but it doesn't particularly care about who has it.
      • You talk like the code is all locked away, and that the keepers have the power to keep it that way.

        Trying to keep widely spread information away from "bad" people is a fool's quest. How many programmers worked on this project? Dozens? How easy would it be to duplicate the ideas, if not the exact code? Pretty easy. The data may be more difficult, thanks to the sheer quantity, but that's also the most perishable part.

        Do you realize how easy it is to design nuclear weapons? I suppose you'd like to th

        • by cdrguru (88047)

          There is more to nuclear weapons than just the unavailability of the materials.

          OK, if you have unlimited weight and size and enough material for a complete critical mass, well, maybe you don't have a problem. As mentioned, you throw it together and stand back. It is a little more complicated than that in that you need to assemble the critical mass
          so fast that it doesn't melt before going off but in general that isn't a huge problem.

          However, if you have a weight and/or size budget or are trying to make a s

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bill_mcgonigle (4333) *

      Open source and 'bad people' can use your code.

      Puh-leese, that ship has already sailed. They worked hard to re-elect a guy who, according to the NYU/Stanford report [livingunderdrones.org] has killed nearly a thousand civilians with drones, including 176 children, not to mention the number of injured.

      If these programmers' work was actually influential in the election's outcome (I doubt it, but for the sake of argument...) then they share in the responsibility for every additional man, woman, and child who will be murdered in the

      • by Fwipp (1473271)

        If these programmers' work was actually influential in the election's outcome (I doubt it, but for the sake of argument...) then they share in the responsibility for every additional man, woman, and child who will be murdered in the next four years. They could have chosen to work for one of the peace candidates, but declined to.

        Everyone with their head on straight knew back in 2008 that the winner of 2012 was going to be either Barack Obama or whoever the Republicans backed, barring some unprecedented public outcry. If they worked for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or some other candidate, the odds of a Romney win would have increased,while doing nothing to increase the odds of their actual preferred candidate winning.

        There's something to be said for making a living wage while working to avoid the greater of two evils.

        • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:58PM (#42661037)

          They are the same evil. Your mentality IS the problem with this country. You are what keep this bullshit going. Just stop... get out of politics. Don't vote... please. If only the people that actually cared about this country, and the people having hellfire missles landing in their livingrooms got to vote, then maybe we'd get somewhere. We're involved militarily in more countries now, than when Bush was in office. How is that the lesser of 2 evils?

          Often we hear about candidates that they are "Radical" or out of the "mainstream" If the normal mainstream is bombing nearly every country in the African continent, most countries in the middle east, ans southern Asia, then we definitely need a radical in office. The people do not need our "help" the help is usually worse than what they had before. Also, our country is on the fiscal decline. That's ok, we don't have to be the richest country on earth by several orders of magnitude. We can live comfortably... but we do not have all this extra money to be pretending to be the worlds police force. We have a crap ton of nukes, no ones going to invade us. So lets just scale back a "tad" Shit, if we spent the military budget on building bases on the moon we could just move there and let the world go to shit on it's own (just kidding, but really... the military budgets way too big.)

          • by LordLimecat (1103839) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @05:34PM (#42661473)

            Don't vote... please. If only the people that actually cared about this country, and the people having hellfire missles landing in their livingrooms got to vote, then maybe we'd get somewhere

            Has it occurred to you that in the 200+ years of only having US citizens vote (mostly), we HAVENT had a major revolution, we havent had a substantial invasion (excepting the War of 1812), we havent had any dictators, and we generally have been pretty stable compared to almost everywhere else (along with perhaps the UK).

            But no, our system is flawed and clearly the solution is to throw out what has been working remarkably well given how messed up people generally are. Lets go with anarchy, thats always a great fallback, right?

            If you ask me, I would go with "lets address the problems we have" rather than "lets throw it all away and hope things dont get substantially worse".

            • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @05:51PM (#42661747)

              You don't consider the Civil war a major revolution? It is the war in which more Americans were killed than any other. There was even a President of the Confederate States of America. Seems pretty major to me. We haven't had a successful, violent revolution.

              Aside from that I agree we can assume the base of this democracy is solid. But it does need much work.

      • Puh-leese, that ship has already sailed. They worked hard to re-elect a guy who, according to the NYU/Stanford report [livingunderdrones.org] has killed nearly a thousand civilians with drones, including 176 children, not to mention the number of injured.

        Don't forget the kittens and puppies.

    • by Patch86 (1465427)

      Congratulations on doing an excellent job restating the title of this story. Have a cookie.

      Open Source developers know exactly what they want to do- open source it. They're acting completely in line with their beliefs/philosophy. Partisan politicians know exactly what they want to do too- they want to keep it closed in order to keep it out of the hands of the "bad people".

      This isn't some internal morale debate. This is two camps of people working together, but then arguing about what to do next.

  • Improving you say (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gadzook33 (740455) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:02PM (#42660351)
    Personally I wouldn't want my code maintained to levels I've come to expect from open source "standards".
  • by emagery (914122) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:03PM (#42660355)
    ... open sourcing the software may be critical; not only does it expose to anyone who needs to know that its done well and ethically, but it can also serve as a platform (at all levels) for the majority of voters to fight back against the exponentiation of aforementioned gerrymandering.
    • by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:12PM (#42660461)

      Except they had a huge electoral advantage from their software. The GOP does not have very sophisticated get out the vote tools. So why on earth would the DEMs give the GOP one of their proprietary competitive advantages?!

      "Hey we heard you wanted to gerrymander the districts even further. Here's a tool to help you elect officials to enable you to do that!"

      • by Sparticus789 (2625955) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:17PM (#42660507) Journal

        You mean the same way that Maryland gerrymandered districts to eject a Republican congressman? District 3 in Maryland isn't even consecutive, it is 3 areas of the state that are 10-20 miles apart. Only fair that some Republicans in other states get to do the same.

        • by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:28PM (#42660675)
          The only 'fair' thing is to remove politics from the district drawing process altogether. Not easy or simple, but Money and Political District Drawing are 2 things that quite literally are a direct threat to our governmental system.
          • The only 'fair' thing is to remove politics from the district drawing process altogether. Not easy or simple, but Money and Political District Drawing are 2 things that quite literally are a direct threat to our governmental system.

            Not only is it not easy or simple, it is not possible. No matter how you set the process up, someone will manipulate it for political advantage. The one change that could be made (but if it is, it should be made at the state level, not the federal) is to make it so that districts are required to be contiguous and as geographically compact as possible. The problem with getting that enacted is that would preclude creating districts intended to maximize the number of districts which have a majority of particul

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          You're an alabaster retard. Yes, the same way. I dislike Obama, and I hope someone drops thermite on whatever server is hosting this software (and all the personal information it contains about millions of Americans), but the Republican Party gerrymanders harder, better, faster, and stronger than anyone. It's fine to be bothered by Maryland, but be bothered on behalf of the citizens whose votes have been stolen, not on behalf of the party that's done more to damage voting rights than any entity since Jeffer
        • If there's a way in politics to cheat and get elected, it will happen, because anyone who doesn't will lose their office to someone who does.

          Thus gerrymandering will continue to happen, by both parties, unless voters punish them for doing so, and support those who don't gerrymander. But that requires an electorate that pays attention.
        • by Hatta (162192) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:56PM (#42661029) Journal

          How about we hang both Democrats AND Republicans who gerrymander? That's only fair.

        • And this is why we don't deserve nice things. When everything is justified by "but the other party is doing the same thing!", nothing will ever improve. Instead, it will just be eternal bickering. Which has its own appeal (stalemate can be good in certain circumstances...), but is mostly just leading to a lot of shouting and idiotic decisions when the stalemate is lifted.

      • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:18PM (#42660517)

        The GOP does not have very sophisticated get out the vote tools.

        Evangelical Christianity?

      • by sycodon (149926)

        Principals...nice to have, but can be jettisoned when inconvenient.

    • ... open sourcing the software may be critical; not only does it expose to anyone who needs to know that its done well and ethically, but it can also serve as a platform (at all levels) for the majority of voters to fight back against the exponentiation of aforementioned gerrymandering.

      What does this software have to do with gerrymandering? Sure, it gives them an idea of what type of voters are where, but so does the actually county by county public vote tallies after each election.

    • by houghi (78078)

      For those who did not know what gerrymandering was. A movie that explains it in 5 minutes is right here [youtube.com]

  • simple. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThorGod (456163) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:03PM (#42660359) Journal

    Have the DNC set aside $400k or so to keep a 3 member team of coders updating it for the next 4 years. Don't forget, there are midterms in 2 years.

  • by eksith (2776419) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:05PM (#42660389) Homepage
    A bit like a Linux distribution, they used existing components and avoided as much work from scratch as possible due to the time constraints and need for as reliability and flexibility as is possible. Some of the AWS wizardry and front-end stuff may be what's really missing from the picture.
  • Huh? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tilante (2547392) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:07PM (#42660411)

    Why would they put it on ice for four years? There are plenty of state elections, local elections, and Congressional elections between now and the next presidential election, and I find it hard to believe that the software is so specialized that it's only good for presidential elections - for one thing, if it were that specialized, open sourcing it likely wouldn't help, since no one's going to bother working on code that's of no use for anything else.

    And also, "none of that will be useful in four years" sounds like BS to me. The hyped usage was in targeting who to have workers phone or visit. Polls, addresses, phones, etc. aren't going to change significantly in four years, and unless they did some seriously messed-up stuff, their code should still compile and run with only minor tweaks at worst four years from now.

    • by tilante (2547392)
      Update: misleading summary is misleading. In the actual article, the "none of that will be useful in four years" was referring to commercial election software, not the code that OFA wrote. *Sigh*. I really should stop expecting the summary to actually give proper context to quotes....
      • Your points are still valid. One of the reasons Obama won was because he was able to organize on the local level better than Romney. This implies that the software would be useful for local elections.

  • by turbidostato (878842) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:15PM (#42660491)

    It gets as simply as this:

    The developers who created the baby want it grow to be a nice piece of useful code that can benefit everybody.

    Politicians want to have an edge on their rivals.

    • by w_dragon (1802458)
      Or the politicians realize they may not be in office in a few years and would love to go to the new politicians and say 'How would you like access to the software that won the 2012 election? Only a million dollars per year!"
  • by LordStormes (1749242) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:19PM (#42660545) Homepage Journal

    Let the DNC hire the programmers and keep them on staff. Keep the code closed-source (so the Rs don't get it) and also expand it to work with local races in the House and Senate.

  • If the code is open, we might then have a notion of the scope, depth, and detail with which all of us are being tracked by the party. And that would probably be shocking to all of us who thought we had some level of privacy left. So I don't expect it to be open for just that reason.

    • by hawguy (1600213)

      If the code is open, we might then have a notion of the scope, depth, and detail with which all of us are being tracked by the party. And that would probably be shocking to all of us who thought we had some level of privacy left. So I don't expect it to be open for just that reason.

      It's not the Democratic Party that is doing the tracking - its the commercial data sources that they buy their data from. And you don't need to look at Obama's source code to see the depth that we are all tracked.

  • Someone who is confident in their beliefs has no qualms with a level playing field. ...then again, isn't this a manipulation tool?
  • Ethical concerns (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:25PM (#42660635)

    In this sense, the decision to mothball the tech would be a violation of the developers’ ethical principles.

    Unless the developers were tricked into thinking they were developing an open source software platform, I don't see where ethics come in. Why would a business release the software that is widely believed to have given it a competitive advantage?

    . "It’s going to send a very bad signal to engineers who might consider working on the next election cycle in 2016," says Rathee. "It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how we work."

    There are lots of programmers that understand confidentiality and realize that their code is never going to be open sourced. Is there a growing body of developers that want everything to be open sourced and free to the world?

    The things we built off of open source should go back to the public," says Manik Rathee, who worked as a user experience engineer with OFA. The team relied on open source frameworks like Rails, Flask, Jekyll and Django.

    Isn't this exactly the type of thing Rails, Flask, Jekyll and Django were built for? To allow developers to quickly develop and deploy applications? This is the kind of FUD that makes corporations afraid to use open source - they think that if they take advantage of an Open Source framework then they are obligated to open source their code even if it's used only for an in-house application.

    I don't see the source code for Google's search engine or Facebook's core code available for download even though both companies take advantage of FOSS software in their infrastructure -- that's not to say that they haven't released some of their support code, but the "secret sauce" that runs the business is still private.

  • With the amount of money in politics, I would be extremely surprised if the RNC was not already investing in their own software development. In fact, take a look at this recent press release [gop.com]
    • The problem is that any new program will be commissioned by and paid for by Republicans. That means everything that can be outsourced will be, and we all know what the quality control on outsourced code is like.

      Even if they did manage to come up with a brilliant GotV system, they are a dying party. Those under 30 went 2/3 for Obama this election. Conservatives have lost the moral war on gay marriage and they're not doing themselves any favor on other subjects, like rape and abortion. As for the econo
  • The republicans run Windows. the GOTV code from the Obama campaign would be unusable to them.

    • by kenh (9056)

      Uh, yeah - they would be completely baffled, unable to find a way to run anything other than Windows...

      They would have no idea how to set up a *nix-based web server.

      The team relied on open source frameworks like Rails, Flask, Jekyll and Django.

      Darn! Foiled again by their choice of desktop platform!

  • by smoore (25406) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:34PM (#42660773) Homepage

    I know for a fact the Republican Party of Florida has similar a software/database setup that is constantly tweaked, maintained and used. There are too many elections between Presidential ones to let it go to waste. The DNC just needs to sell it to the state party offices to keep it useful.

  • by Enry (630)

    For one thing, were the programmers paid for the work they did and was it clearly understood that their work may not be released as open source before they started (IOW, who holds copyright on the code?)

    For another, that code could come back into play in 2014 for the midterm elections. Or it could be used sooner depending on how quickly 2016 starts to heat up.

    • by kenh (9056)

      2016 has already heated up - several MSM outlets were working on their 2016 shortlists after the 2012 elections.

  • If the Democrats open-source, and the Republicans don't, won't such a situation provide a permanent edge for the Republicans?
    • These people are the developers for heaven's sake. If they introduced 50 really hard to find bugs before they open-sourced it then some of them are likely to go undiscovered while naturally occurring bugs get fixed by whoever does contribute back. It improves the version the Dems have while still crippling the version out in the wild. Of course, the Repubs could always contribute back their own bugs, but even those might be revealing.
  • by kawabago (551139) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @04:53PM (#42660989)
    Getting more people to vote is good for the democratic process so the DNC should not look at it as a benefit to the Republicans but instead it is a benefit to all Americans. It should be open sourced so America benefits.
  • Fork the political software!

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @05:18PM (#42661291) Journal
    Look, the code is not all that valuable or secret or great or not-repeatable or anything. Republicans with their friendly corporations can hire better programmers and put together equal or better code.

    What made OFA better was that people were willing to let Obama For America get access to their friend's list, .mailrc, gmail contact list etc etc. I, for one, would be very terribly upset if OFA shares the contact graph created by me allowing OFA access to my private list of friends shared willy-nilly and every Tom-Dick-or-Harry politician starts calling my contact list pretending to have my approval or endorsement. I gave Obama access to my contact list. I don't want it shared with DNC without my explicit approval.

    I trust Congressional democrats less than I trust Obama. In fact I trust Congressional Republicans less only by a slim margin compared to congressional Democrats. Looks like Harry Reid is preparing to cry uncle and surrender everything in the filibuster reform.

  • Not opening the source is extremely short-sighted. On one hand, the opposition (read republicans in this case) may be able to leverage the progress of Obama's campaign developers. However, third parties would also be able to leverage this software. This would aid the third (or forth, fifth) parties to gain visibility and thus choice for the American people. Opening the code would be a net positive for those that matter; the American people.

  • by tweir (27510) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @05:29PM (#42661429)

    Post-election it was widely reported that the tech powering the Obama camp was a big factor in its success, whereas the Romney camp was handicapped by poorly tested & implemented systems.

    Why would they want to give that away that sort of advantage?

    My suggestion would be to make it easy to volunteer on the project, & hack on the code, but not go so far as to open source it. This enables participation from folks who are motivated, but doesn't give the competition a leg up.

  • by rastoboy29 (807168) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @05:57PM (#42661829) Homepage
    One of the  Democrat's huge advantages last election was that they apparently could hire competent software development teams.

    If  you've ever been involved in software development, you know how rare this is.

    The Republican software never worked properly.  Why would you give away that advantage?

    Once they catch up, whatever, but I woudn't do it now.

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