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New Obama for America Page is a Jungle Gym for Donation Data

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, October 20 2011

Obama for America has released a website for users to explore data about the campaign's donor base, in order to celebrate, per the campaign, their one-millionth donor.

The application allows users to play with selected campaign finance facts and figures the campaign frames as proof that "Americans in every state across the country have pitched in what they can afford to own a piece of this campaign," but it's also an example of a new emerging use for campaign data. We know the 2012 campaign will be about micro-targeting: the ability, thanks to precise data on voters and supporters, to put highly individualized messages in front of each potential target, maximizing the chance that each person will pull out their checkbook or cast their vote. But that's no longer necessarily as passive as being included on a list of donors who oh, I don't know, might give $50 for the chance to go bowling with Obama because they have bowling listed as an interest on Facebook. Students of game theory and elements of game design generally have been a part of online politics at least since the 2004 Howard Dean and George W. Bush campaigns, and as they have more and more data about the game players at their fingertips, they are getting smarter about how to put that data to work to make interactions with the campaign that much more compelling.

In a way, this is a demonstration of how. For example, one interactive on the page is headlined, "Most of our donations were $250 or less." It invites the user to scroll back and forth through donation sizes and see what percentage of contributions were underneath that dollar amount, from $250 on down.

There are two even more personal examples: Give the site your name or state, and it will come back with how many people have given money and share either of those things with you.

While these features don't ask users to rack up points or compete against one another in competition, they still invite visitors to hang around and play. The assumption seems to be that as users fiddle about, they'll find the way of looking at these figures that appeals most to them. In a way, using elements of interaction and game design in this fashion is a bit like having visitors micro-target themselves.

It's also a way for the campaign to try to prove its point: That it is a grassroots effort.

The website also offers a breakdown of donors by occupation — and says that 18 percent of all donors are in business, operations, or administrative. The example job titles listed there are "Consultant," "Small Business Owner," "Administrative Assistant," and "Human Resources." I'm having trouble getting myself set up with the latest data, but based on Obama for America's earlier filings, according to my analysis of Federal Election Commission data, other occupations that might fall into that category — and, taken together, already account for millions in contributions — include "attorney" and "lawyer," "physician," "CEO," "president," "professor" and "executive."

All of this is fodder for another story entirely. It's not at all clear if a high number of Internet-powered, small-dollar donations necessarily mean a campaign is "owned" by grassroots activists.