The President, the election and big data

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A little over four years ago I wrote a post about the presidential primary results, suggesting that an important political threshold had been crossed. The network – and notably the use of social and mobile – was centrally influential.

Whatever your political orientation, it is clear that Obama has been remarkably successful at mobilizing people and money through the network. …. the combination of social networking techniques and the diffusion of connectivity through mobile and other devices have allowed Obama’s campaign to scale very effectively, both in terms of numbers participating and amount of funds raised. [Candidate 2.0 and crowdfunding]

This year, we may have seen yet another important threshold crossed – as the data-driven campaign has been ushered in. Big data has come to the election.

The Obama campaign approach is described in the widely observed article by Michael Scherer in Time Magazine. He describes a ‘metric driven campaign’ managed by a highly secretive analytics department.

The “scientists” created regular briefings on their work for the President and top aides in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, but public details were in short supply as the campaign guarded what it believed to be its biggest institutional advantage over Mitt Romney’s campaign: its data. [Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win]

The article describes how the team analysed data to identify donors, voters and efficient ad placements. Patterns in the data influenced which celebrities were asked to address which audiences and persuaded Obama to answer questions on Reddit.

That data-driven decisionmaking played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes'” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived. [Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win]

Analytics is now a major activity, as transaction or ‘intentional’ data is aggregated and mined for insight …. and the Obama campaign appears to have relied heavily on ‘campaign analytics’. Having collected a lot of data they used it as a strategic resource. One side-effect is to further embed the importance of quantitative methods in the popular consciousness. Increasingly, as we yield up data in more of our interactions it is mined to predict behaviors, to adapt systems, to improve services. Pandora, as I note in the blog entry above, does our listening for us.
As more material is digital, as more business processes are automated, and as more activities shed usage data, organizations are manipulating larger amounts of relatively unstructured data and extracting value from it. We have become used to recommendations based on buying or navigation patterns. Within the library field, patterns of download, holdings or resolution are being mined to improve services. We are seeing the emergence of predictive analytics in education. Altmetrics based on user behaviors of various types are a topic of rich discussion. We are collecting data and making it work harder everywhere ….

Coda: John Naughton has a nice column on the importance of data for the campaign and more generally.
Related entries:

Note: updated 11/12/12




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