November 09, 2020

Punk technologist and entrepreneur Harper Reed recently dropped into a Rhetoric, Democracy and Communications virtual class to discuss how data can drive decision-making.

Reed’s website humbly describes him as “probably one of the coolest guys ever,” Harper Reed but he legitimately has some pretty cool experience to back up that claim. He is the former head of commerce at Braintree, a subsidiary of PayPal, and in 2011, he served as chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Reed joined Associate Professor of Management Emma Fleck’s class to discuss the concept of segmentation and specifically how it is used in politics.

With the Obama campaign, Reed helped build a team of developers from tech companies like Twitter, Google, Facebook, Craigslist and Quora to create a centralized database of electoral information. This approach — hiring technology workers from the tech startups rather than the political realm — was novel.

“Not only did Harper bring his immense and contagious energy to the classroom, but he also gave the students an understanding of how political campaigns rely on different marketing strategies to reach supporters and potential voters,” she said.

Reed said the evolution of what came to be known as Project Narwhal was by accident. Project Narwhal was the name given to the computer program Reed and other built for the 2012 Obama campaign.

“We thought we were reflecting back things that other people were doing, and then it turns out that we were inventing,” he said.

He shared his experience with the Obama campaign and offered insights into the 2020 presidential election. Fleck’s students were interested in hearing about how internet users can be protected from the more nefarious uses of personal data.

“How do we create systems that don’t allow for abuse?” asked political science major Michael McManus ’22.

Internet users have become much more savvy about their own data, Reed said, but in the same way governments have launched education campaigns to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Reed suggested the same is needed to teach internet users how to protect their personal data. He also advocated for better data-protection laws.

“Our incentives to build these things are not aligned with our incentives as users,” Reed said. “The companies themselves don’t change until there is some kind of problem in economics … but if we understand how to solve this problem for the people who are most vulnerable, if you solve it for them, you solve it for everyone else.”