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Politics & Law Series: General Election

Big Data Elections

The key to Downing Street?

by Demetri Petrou (Senior Internal Communications Officer)

In the coming months, British citizens will exercise their democratic right to elect their chosen parliament for the next five years. This year sees an unprecedented level of competition, with the traditional major parties challenged by the likes of the Green Party and the UK Independence Party. With this level of competition, the major parties are having to rethink their campaign strategies in an attempt to win the public’s favour. One of the major tactics that has gathered the attention of the media in recent months is the use of ‘big data’.

American Influence

“I guess we can credit President Obama for our recent deluge into the use of data,” says Tom Felle, Acting Director of Interactive and Newspaper Journalism and co-author of Old reporting, new methods: how data journalism is keeping an eye on government. “He was one of the very first to use things like social media to campaign for his first term. He pretty much came from nowhere politically. He was from Hawaii and was a senator in Illinois for only three years before running for President up against John McCain, a Navy veteran with over three decades of political experience” Tom continues. “He won over the public who were ready for a forward thinking President. He was highly active on Facebook and Twitter, even though Twitter was then in its infancy. One of his tweets remains one of the most popular tweets of all time.” 

It wasn’t just the use of social media that helped Obama win his presidential campaign. ‘Project Houdini’ in 2008 and ‘Project Narwhal’ in 2012 were said to be the digital hub and the nerve centre of the Obama campaign. The different projects acted as interfaces to a single shared data store for all of the campaign’s applications, making it possible quickly to develop new applications and to integrate existing ones into the campaign’s system.Those apps include sophisticated analytics programs like ‘Dreamcatcher’, a tool developed to ‘microtarget’ voters based on sentiments within text.

Theories and Algorithms

With the undoubted success of these campaigns, it was only a matter of time before they would be utilised by political parties all over the world. In the last General Election, the Conservative Party began using software called ‘Merlin’, which was developed by EMC Consulting. The system is said to contain 200 million records. For the upcoming election campaigns, Labour is using two pieces of software, ‘Contact Creator’ and ‘Voter ID’, both coded by Labour enthusiasts. The Liberal Democrats are using a system called ‘Connect’.

“There’s nothing particularly new about what the political parties are doing” says Dr Roger Beecham, Research Fellow in Visual Data Analytics at City’s giCentre. Before Roger joined City, he worked for YouGov, one of the UK’s biggest market research firms, who at the last election accurately predicted that Labour would achieve 36 per cent of the vote despite the majority of other polls predicting 38-41 per cent. “Recording data and tailoring your approach has been practised for several years” he said. “Tesco, alongside marketing firm Dunnhumby, launched its clubcard in the 90s which gathered mountains of data about its customers spending habits allowing it to tailor its marketing towards them. These systems were built upon more recently by internet firms like Amazon.” 

“What these systems are doing is collating several bits of information about the electorate and incorporating theories and algorithms to make predictions to how they will vote” explains Roger. “With the ability to establish how ‘concrete’ the voters are, the parties will spend their limited resources on targeted campaigns to win over undecided voters. The important thing to remember is that they are only as good as the information that goes into them; and the longer they are in place, the more accurate and reliable they are.” When used correctly, the systems can be a great advantage to the parties, providing they use them correctly.

Scaremongering

A lot has been said in the media about the gathering of data. The words ‘snooping’ and ‘harvesting’ have been used, but Tom doesn’t necessarily agree with the headlines. “I think there’s a certain amount of scaremongering going on. A great deal of this is based on American politics which is a completely different kettle of fish. There are a couple of really important factors that we need to think about. Firstly, it’s a matter of budgets. American politics are generally decided by who has the biggest budget. Their resources are immeasurable compared to those of British political parties. That includes financial resources as well as manpower. They have huge amounts of volunteers covering a much bigger geographical location, so it’s important that this is done efficiently to ensure they maximise their vast resources. We don’t have mass participation like they do in the US and party membership is relatively small. The other critical factor is the access to public information. As a culture, Americans are far more open to sharing their information than the British are. They are a great deal more receptive to market research calls and interviews, which allows the American politicians to build a huge database of information. Quite frankly, I don’t think that they will be able to do that in the UK.”

It is quite clear that the next election will be a close run affair with many predicting that a coalition government will again be needed to form Parliament. In such a tight race, the fight for extra voters will be even more important.

With so much being said about what a big difference data will make, Tom also shared the long term danger of overly relying on data and public opinion to campaign for an election. “The danger with having this much information about what voters want to see, is that there is a chance politicians will pander to the will of the voter, with all parties having similar policies as that is what the voters want to see. This potentially leaves some voters, especially those with unpopular opinions, no form of representation. It’s sometimes easy to forget that on occasion, we need our politicians to make unpopular decisions that are for the good of the country and not just to get them into office.”

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