In a large conference room devoid of windows, a segment of the Obama 2012 campaign team set up camp. For two years, the Obama for America Analytics Department worked out of that room, lovingly called “The Cave,” building, analyzing and exploring. The result was the first individual-level campaign in the world—and one whose foundation in Big Data was a large part of its success. Once victory was achieved, though, the team wasn’t ready to split up.
Image via Facebook.
“It was clear to me that we had assembled an amazingly talented team and as the campaign was drawing to a close, I started thinking about how we could keep this great group of people together in order to build off of what we’d done and leverage data and analytics to solve other big challenges,” says Dan Wagner, the CEO of the recently-launched big data firm Civis Analytics and former Chief Analytics Officer of Obama for America.
Back in 2007, Wagner joined the Obama cause by volunteering as a Latino phone bank coordinator, relying on his experience reporting in South America during college to bridge the language gap. At the time, he was also working at a financial consulting firm but, following a conversation with an Iowa staffer and a subsequent tool he developed to measure caucus results, he joined the Obama team full-time as the Deputy Vote File Manager. From there, he ascended the ranks until he ultimately took the top Analytics role in 2011.
Today, Wagner leads his original crew as they use big data to solve problems for companies, non-profits, campaigns and candidates. He helps craft strategies, encourages better decision making and bolsters organizations using the data they have available. Google’s Eric Schmidt is Civis Analytics’ only investor so far, though Wagner says he provided some seed funding from his own savings as well.
We caught up with Wagner to learn more about his team, organization and goals:
When did you realize The Analytics Cave could become its own company?
DW: In the exhausted post-campaign haze, my initial thought was to take some money that I’d saved and apply for a small business loan from a bank. Thankfully, Eric Schmidt approached me on Election Night and suggested we talk the following day. It was in that second conversation that he asked me what I was planning to do next. When I explained my plan, he looked at me and said, “Yeah, that’s not going to work. I have another idea.” He told me to write up my idea in a couple of pages and that we’d start the conversation more seriously from there.
Who makes up your team? Any notable players?
DW: We are a team of statisticians, data scientists, organizers and engineers, some of whom worked on one or both of President Obama’s campaigns, but others of whom come from inside and outside politics. For example, both Caroline Grey—my co-founder & the company’s VP—and I worked for Barack Obama as far back as the 2008 Iowa caucus. Matt Lackey, our VP of Quantitative Analytics, worked on the 2008 Obama campaign, but also has extensive experience working for unions and other progressive organizations.
Why do you think it's important to work with Big Data?
DW: Every day, organizations almost regardless of size are generating, capturing and storing increasing amounts of digital data. What we consistently hear from non-profits, companies and campaigns alike is that they are overwhelmed by this abundance of data and know that they’re missing opportunities to learn what it’s trying to tell them. They want to make sense of their data to guide strategy and decision-making, to stop guessing and instead have those processes be data-driven.
How do you make Big Data more approachable for your clients?
DW: First, we tell useful, interesting stories that answer their problems directly. Second, we provide products and analysis to assist them through implementation. Third, we think about analytics both from a problem solving and an organization-building perspective. At the end of the day we want to solve problems, but we also want to help improve your organization in the process to make it a better problem-solving entity over the long-term.
What are some obstacles you face in your day-to-day business?
DW: We’re a young company, so I think it’s a mix of staying humble, learning as much as we can about the new industries we work in and maintaining our track record of excellence on behalf of our clients.
How do you measure success for your company?
DW: One way we measure our success is by effecting organizational change with our partners and clients: did we help these organizations better answer questions they’d previously been answering on gut and intuition? Did we help them achieve their mission?
What are your goals for the rest of 2013?
DW: Growing our team and changing the world—or at least laying the groundwork to help more American high school students enroll and complete college education [through working with the College Board] and to help millions of uninsured Americans gain access to affordable health care [by working with organizations to help enroll individuals who will become eligible for insurance under the Affordable Care Act].