Will Big Data Determine Our Next President?


H.O. Maycotte, Contributor

May 14, 2015

As the 2016 U.S. presidential election nears, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the profound effects of data on marketing to consumers are hardly limited to business and industry. Ever since President Obama’s data-driven re-election campaign swept him back into office (and made a celebrity of data cruncher Nate Silver in the process), data has become a critical component in politics. From building and maintaining massive voter databases to gleaning social-data insights into voter behavior, data is the key to everything from targeting and motivating voters to dynamically determining resource allocations.

When you think about it, big data works exactly the same way in politics as it does in business; the only difference is that marketing efforts are aimed at voters instead of customers. Just as we’ve come a long way from the days of the traveling salesman going door to door with a suitcase full of samples, so too have we traveled a long road from candidates knocking on doors to ask for votes. With data in the picture, many of the same kinds of challenges and opportunities have emerged whether the landscape is business or politics. Companies and campaigns alike have to figure out how to generate enough data for effective analysis, how to unify data from multiple sources and how to apply analytics and predictive analytics to it for the best results – all while dealing with data privacy concerns. If they can surmount the challenges, they enjoy unprecedented opportunities to target and personalize communications to reach people more effectively and to operate more efficiently.

Given that backdrop for political action, I’d like to take a deeper dive into how the presidential campaigns of 2016 can use data to influence the outcome of the race.

Using social media to identify and connect with voters
There’s no question that social media and social data have revolutionized how people participate in the political process today. Just look back at the millions of Twitter conversations that sprang up or the many viral campaign videos during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The increase in activism and involvement was positively palpable. By 2012, candidates Obama and Romney had become well-versed in social media and the use of social data, enabling them to further refine their digital messaging and more accurately target voters. And with continued growth in social media use – to 2.13 billion users in 2016, up from 1.4 billion in 2012 — the importance of social data in the next election can only increase.

Engagement in politics via social media presents tremendous opportunities to campaigns to gather information about and reach out to voters. Just as brands and businesses post content to capture their market’s attention, so do political campaigns. Their content doesn’t just provide information to potential voters; it engages them in active conversations that Pew Research describes as much more of a dialogue. People on social media also share content from campaigns, creating a wealth of user-generated content that turns into earned media, which can itself turn into paid media when campaigns use it in their ads.

Social media can also feed campaign databases with an avalanche of data that’s generated when voters use social to provide information about themselves to campaigns. Bloomberg recently reported extensively on how Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been using social to collect voter information, for example, as well as publishing an in-depth interview with political consultant Mitch Stewart about his role in “building as big a list as humanly possible” for the Clinton campaign.

Top challenges: Data unification and data privacy
Of course, Hillary Clinton isn’t the only candidate who’s using social data to build a database of potential voters. But no matter who’s doing it, there are two important concerns for any campaign that collects data on voters. One is how to unify voter data that’s coming in from multiple sources and the other is how to protect voters’ privacy.

The key to making data useful (and using it efficiently) is data unification. I’ve talked about the importance of cross-correlating data from multiple silos in this space before, and I contend that everything I’ve said about its importance in business applies equally to political campaigns. They’re getting data from a variety of social media channels – and not only that, they’re also collecting it via email and at campaign events, among other sources. They need to be able to unify the data in order to get a complete view of the information they have and determine how to act on it.

Data privacy is also an important challenge, especially as voter information and communication become more targeted and individualized. A former deputy attorney general in New Jersey, speaking to the technology news source ZDNet, summed it up like this: “Modern campaigns have an enormous task to protect the big data they give to staff, vendors, and campaign volunteers.”

Using analytics to drive strategy
Collecting data is one thing; diving into it to drive strategic decisions is where the real value of data in politics lies. Data is being created all the time, as people share events and information on social media and through mobile devices. By applying data algorithms to social, geolocation and other data, campaigns can target voters more precisely than ever. They can also make more targeted decisions about resource allocation, such as determining where to spend paid media dollars to get the most bang for the buck. Another important aspect of using data is being able to identify and target voters who are undecided in efforts to sway them in a certain direction. Similarly, data can be used to identify champion supporters who can persuade those in their own networks to vote for their favored candidate.

The other role of data analytics is predictive — i.e., forecasting the outcome of elections. That’s what brought so much attention to Nate Silver in 2012 – the fact that he correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential election. He did it using a variety of data science tools, drawing on multiple data sources and statistical models, among other things. Here’s a pretty good summary of the tools at his disposal. It’s a terrific example of the power of data in politics these days.

Of course, Nate Silver also called the recent UK election – and made the wrong call. There are a number of factors involved, of course, but it’s a reminder that we in data are constantly challenged to re-examine and refine our methods to use data to our best advantage. It’s also a reminder that in politics, anything can happen. I can’t wait to see how the 2016 election turns out and how big data affects it.

This article was written by H.O. Maycotte from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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