Feb 16, 2012

Is the presidential campaign providing a look at the first truly massive use of big data?

Let me preface my question by saying it has nothing to do with any candidate's merits or lack thereof. What I find interesting is the use of massive amounts of data to target supporters, both current and potential. There was a story in Slate today that referenced Project Norwal, which takes information from numerous separate repositories and creates a complete picture of voters, which is then made available to all arms of President Obama's reelection campaign. As Slate put it, it merges "the multiple identies of the engaged citizen - the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer - into a single, unified political profile." Ok, I'll admit that doesn't sound THAT impressive...until you consider the Obama campaign has records on 170 MILLION potential voters, with an unidentified number of them actually being the same people. I will be watching to see how this plays out from a big data perspective. Am I off base, or is this really the first massive use of big data that we've seen publicly?


The Obama campaign was really the first national political campaign to leverage social media to its advantage back in 2008, so I'm not surprised that it would be inclined to embrace big data for 2012.  There was an indication that this was happening a few months ago when the Obama campaign was publicly recruiting for data scientists and data engineers at Stanford.  It makes perfect sense - they have a huge store of information on millions of individuals, and being able to leverage that information into even a 1% advantage in votes gained could make the difference between a win and a loss.  Also, the campaign has the complete background information of many supporters from 2008, including education, work history, references, etc., thanks to a program ran during the post-election transition period that encouraged people to apply for administration positions.  Add in over 20 million folks that like his facebook profile.  Add in 10 million twitter followers  That is a wealth of information, and utilizing all of this data to pitch specific appeals to individual voters has the potential to be campaign gold.  And they have tens of millions of dollars to try to do it right.


I'm sure the Republican candidates are doing something similar, but I am far less familiar with their campaigns.  We will see shortly whether this effort to utilize big data bears fruit.  If you start seeing political messages/advertising effectively targeting you on specific issues that you care about, you can judge their success of their data analytics efforts for yourself.   

It's certainly an interesting use of the data, but will it have an effect one way or the other? I don't know, it may affect the election to one degree or another. I suppose it will help the candidates on both sides to tailor their messages to what they think voters want.

On the other hand, this could be mean that they simply pander even more. Is that what we really want or need? Or do we need somebody who will be more straightforward and direct with the country's voters?

We'll have to wait and see if any of the candidates can really gain an advantage from this data or if it's just an interesting footnote to the election.
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