Canaries in a Data Mine

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are united in one respect – together they are making history. Data history, that is.

The two major-party campaigns for the U.S. Presidency this year are the proverbial canaries in a coal mine – canaries in a data mine, if you will – of our big data future.

Charles Duhigg published a fascinating look into the U.S. Presidential candidates’ use of personal data in this Sunday’s New York Times. The privacy concerns raised by this article are very real, but others have very capably covered that angle.

As one who has spent time both in political and corporate research, I find it interesting to look at the similarities and differences between the uses of data in those two worlds.

In some cases, the political world lags behind the corporate world, such as in the adoption of online research methods.

In this case, it’s a little more complicated. The corporate world has pioneered data mining and big data. However, it seems both campaigns have taken the methods created in the corporate world and taken their voter to a level unthinkable even during the last quadrennial election.

From the Duhigg article:

Strategists affiliated with the Obama and Romney campaigns say they have access to information about the personal lives of voters at a scale never before imagined. And they are using that data to try to influence voting habits — in effect, to train voters to go to the polls through subtle cues, rewards and threats in a manner akin to the marketing efforts of credit card companies and big-box retailers…In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives.

Why are the campaigns taking data to this unprecedented level? The competitiveness of this election – indeed, the past several national elections – has given the campaigns a massive incentive to reach for an exploit every possible advantage in voter targeting.

We should not forget to give credit to the leadership of both campaigns for having the vision and the operational wherewithal to make this unprecedented targeting a reality. Campaigns do matter.

The use of data in this election will have another effect, perhaps even more consequential than the contest’s outcome. Use of data by corporations has grown dramatically in recent years. But there’s a big difference between receiving targeted appeals for books or diapers and being contacted and urged to vote by a Facebook connection. Elections are important cultural events, and this is the first one in which our future leaders demonstrate the awesome power of data – and their willingness to use it to the hilt.

They are teaching a lesson not only to their political rivals, but also to average citizens, corporations, and the rest of the world. That lesson is that we have your data, and we’re not afraid to use it. Get used to it, because this is a preview of our big data future.

About Dana Stanley

Dana is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Access.

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