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A Vote for Big Data (Opinion)

From the presidential campaign to law enforcement, big data aims to improve interaction for citizens.

by / December 4, 2012

One of the most pronounced technology trends for 2012 was the emergence of “big data” to improve the performance of everything from police departments to school districts. As of Nov. 6, you can add presidential campaigns to that list.

Anyone seeking proof that subjecting massive data streams to sophisticated analytics can yield powerful insight need look no further than President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. The Obama campaign used big data to stunning effect in its victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine and MSNBC, called Obama’s re-election effort the most technologically sophisticated campaign ever run, helping the president to prevail despite the sluggish economy, a rocky relationship with business leaders and rabid Republican Party opposition. Advanced data-mining techniques were used to pinpoint Obama supporters — particularly women and immigrants — in critical swing states and then the campaign shrewdly used social media to ensure those voters went to the polls.

“The Obama campaign targeted the nine states that were competitive, and they engaged in a very focused effort to get the majority of votes in those states,” said Halperin, speaking last month at re:Public, our annual leadership retreat in Tucson, Ariz. “In almost every one of those states, they hit their targets perfectly.”

He said the campaign purchased all of the commercial data it could find, and then supplemented that information with data collected by field staff that went door to door. Purchased data and field staff findings were fed into a single massive database that was mined to produce a remarkably precise road map for success.

“They knew the election would be very close, but they knew they were going to win,” Halperin said. “They were down to the household and individual level. They knew who their voters were.”

Republicans found themselves badly outgunned on the technology front. But you can bet they won’t lag behind for long; sophisticated data operations quickly will become standard for major political campaigns — and experts already are debating the impact of this. Some worry about voter manipulation or that these expensive data-crunching efforts are beyond the reach of all but the most well financed candidates.

But as a sheer demonstration of big data’s effectiveness, it was quite a display. If state and local agencies can harness some of that power to reduce recidivism, keep kids in school or improve community health, then big data will be a valuable tool indeed.


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Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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