The New York Times has hailed Rayid Ghani as Obama’s “secret engine” for re-election. As Chief Data Scientist, Rayid Ghani invented algorithms to help target voters about the presidential candidates. Ghani and the analytics team broke down the goal of 270 electoral votes into problem sets to answer questions like: who are the swing voters, how do you target each swing voter specifically and how do you mobilize your voters to the voting booth on Election Day? His team’s work resulted in a list of tens of millions of targeted names and a strategy to optimize their volunteers and funds in the most efficient and effective way. He targeted young voters by encouraging them to sign into the Obama campaign website through their facebook accounts and accessed their social networks to identify persuadable friends. He then encouraged Obama voters to share their Obama pitch with their ten most persuadable facebook friends.
Before joining up with the campaign, Ghani never thought of working in the political arena. Without a set plan, Ghani left Accenture Labs after 10 years as a Senior Research Scientist and Director of Analytics Research seeking a fresh opportunity where he could have big social impact. He had no idea how big until a few connections in Chicago recruited him for the position of Chief Data Scientist for Obama’s presidential re-election campaign. At a basic technical level, the data gathering, analyzing, and conclusion process was similar to his work at Accenture Labs, but the steep ramp up of the campaign was unlike anything he had experienced before. Within a year and a half, he helped build a team of workers and volunteers that grew exponentially, the constant organization of which became one of the hardest challenges. It was a significant commitment, with long hours—up to 20 hours a day, 7 days a week at the final push--with an aggressive deadline where failure meant national, even global, repercussions. Conversely, seeing everyone coming together, sacrificing time and effort for one committed cause also became Ghani’s greatest inspiration.
Currently, Ghani and some campaign colleagues are modifying the data analysis tools they used in the campaign to help nonprofits. As Ghani indicates, nonprofits collect the data, but lack the resources to take advantage of the useful conclusions that can be gathered through analysis. He hopes that he and his colleagues can create better resources for non-profits to utilize their volunteers, find more volunteers, and magnify their outreach, which will in turn help them make the most of their funds. Rayid has also joined the University of Chicago at the Computation Institute and Public Policy School to work at the intersection of analytics and high-impact social problems.
Ghani received his M.S. in Knowledge Discovery & Data Mining at Carnegie Mellon in 2001. He has over 50 academic publications, 15 patents filed (seven awarded so far), and 2000 citations in journals, conferences, and workshops. His work has been highlighted by Time, The New York Times, Slate, Business Week, Financial Times, Chicago Tribune, US News & World Report, and NBC.