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Big Data Next Act: Amplifying The Vox Populi

from Forbes.com, Howard Baldwin

Someday someone’s going to write a really terrific history of how technology affects politics, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grasp of radio, wandering through Jack Kennedy’s mastery of television, and concluding with Barack Obama’s use of social media in 2008 and big data in 2012.

The next election in the U.S. is more than a year away (which hasn’t stopped politicians from declaring their intentions), but folks in other countries are already thinking about how big data can influence their own federal elections in 2015. It looks like big data’s next act – after helping Obama in 2012 – is to amplify the vox populi (or as my language teacher Miss McNamara translated on the day we literally covered an entire blackboard with Latin phrases, the voice of the people).

This could be a truly noble effort. It seems that the less people trust government, the less they vote. As tech entrepreneur Giovanna Mingarelli noted in Huffington Post Canada last week, in anticipation of her country’s federal election this year, in the 2011 Canadian Federal Election, only 38.8% of Canadians aged 18 to 24 voted.This same group, she adds, is “hyperconnected” and sharing data across social networks almost constantly.

“An examination of this dynamic data will help us see in real-time what young people are doing, where they’re going and who they like (or not), for instance. In fact, this data could even be analyzed to explore the activities that are shaping their perceptions and expectations of governments and political parties.”

“What’s more,” Mingarelli adds, “if we could better understand the reality of what’s happening with youth at the grassroots level, by the data they’re creating on a daily basis, it could make it a lot easier for governments, political parties and key stakeholders to create authentic, evidence-based campaigns — rooted in the actual needs of young people in Canada — that have real, actionable value.” I like the way this woman thinks.

Coincidentally, Jamie Carter asked on TechRadarPro about the same time if big data could determine who wins the general election in the UK next month, asking if it will be the country’s first “data-driven vote.” He quotes an OpenText executive as saying, “In previous elections it was the spin doctors and the media that influenced the election outcome. Perhaps in 2015 it will be the data scientists who have the most influence.”

There’s no consensus there yet, as an Acxiom executive counters that “the UK’s political parties are nowhere near as advanced in their use of analytics platforms and databases compared to the U.S.” But the goals are clear: “By knowing voters better it will lead to better, more responsive government, and parties that would vie to embody our desires perfectly,” says a Cloudera executive. The article doesn’t go so far as to indicate which party it thinks will be ruling the UK come summer.

For those that remember the 2012 election here in the U.S., you know that the FiveThirtyEight.org web site, led by now-legendary statistician Nate Silver, went a long way toward legitimizing big data in political efforts. So while Canada and the UK are focusing on federal elections, it’s interesting to check in to see what Silver is doing in the lull before the 2016 election.

As statistician Kaiser Fung notes in his Harvard Business Review blog from last week, Silver and his colleague Allison McCann are looking at baby names. Now, like you, I initially thought “huh”? But take a look at Fung’s article. As he notes, “Instead of asking what names were popular (or poisoned or trendy or distinctive) in a given period of time, the two data journalists turned the question around and investigated whether someone’s first name provides sufficient information to guess when he or she was born. This framing of the issue immediately reminds me of the real-world problems of guessing someone’s religion or languages spoken from his or her name, place of residence, and other factors.” What could be more important in politics?

But there’s more to all these stories than that. Even if you’re not in politics, they point to how, even with the most basic information, you need to craft a big data strategy targeting certain demographic groups. That is, after all, what sales and marketing are all about: how to use technology to vanquish your opponent.

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