Harper Reed: Q&A with Obama's Game-Changing Tech Guru

How the hipster mastermind behind high-tech data-mining may have forever changed how elections are run.


With his rooster-like crest of red hair, trendy piercings and penchant for T-shirts and hoodies, Harper Reed hardly looks like the kind of guy who could topple empires. But as chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s reelection effort, Reed supervised a handpicked team of digital wizards who revolutionized election campaigns.

Throughout history, political parties have collected information on voters to gauge their views and target political messages. But in 2008, the Obama campaign took data mining to a new level by collecting morsels culled from online sources like email, Facebook and Twitter. Then they made history by using these platforms to mobilize supporters. In 2012, Reed’s elite geek squad upped the ante by several orders of magnitude in scale and scope. The team built a high-tech platform — code name Narwhal — that mobilized an army of nearly a million volunteers and raised almost a billion dollars, much of it from small donations. It was Narwhal that got out the vote in unprecedented numbers by communicating with individual voters in the most personal of ways. In the end, Narwhal’s apps and databases generated and analyzed millions of precious nuggets on voter attitudes and preferences. That enabled the team to get up close with tens of millions of Americans, delivering an unexpectedly lopsided presidential victory that left opponents shell-shocked. As one dejected Romney staffer told reporters, “They targeted voters we didn’t even know existed.”

Discover caught up with Reed at 1871 (named for the year of the Chicago Fire), a cavernous high-tech incubator in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart just north of downtown that is home to 225 start-ups. The soft-spoken, 35-year-old Greeley, Colo., native talked for several hours over the course of two sessions about the ultimate revenge of the nerds.