Big Data is the big opportunity for referendum campaign teams


Martin Brown, EMC Country Manager for Scotland outlines the important role big data analytics has to play in the run up to Scottish voters going to the polls on 18 September 2014.

Nowhere has big data made such an impact as in politics, so here in Scotland we are watching with interest to see how the statistics reported on a daily basis in the media relating to the fast-approaching Scottish Referendum influence the decision made by voters on 18 September 2014.

It was in 2012, during Barack Obama’s campaign for a second term in office at the White House, that big data analytics earned its reputation as the tool that ensured his victory.  Over a two-year period, the US President’s campaign team collected, stored and analysed voter data collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field-workers, social networks and Democrats’ voter files in the swing states. They then knew what voters liked to eat, how long it took them to take their kids to school, what they did for a living, and how they planned to celebrate their birthdays.

This same data was also mined to help Obama raise $1 billion, hone television ads and create models of swing-state voters that could be used to boost the effectiveness of phone calls, door-knocks, direct mailings and social media. Campaign messages were micro-targeted to appeal to individual voters. Just as Dwight Eisenhower used radio in the 1950s and John F. Kennedy deployed the power of television in the 1960s, Obama leveraged big data analytics to win in 2012.

Few events in American life other than a presidential election touch 126 million adults, or even a significant fraction that many, on a single day. Certainly no corporation, no civic institution, and very few government agencies ever do. Obama did so by reducing every American to a series of numbers. Yet those numbers somehow captured the individuality of each voter, and they were not just demographic classifications. The scores measured the ability of people to change politics—and to be changed by it.

So is this big data analysis being replicated by the Yes and No campaigns currently in Scotland?  There’s no doubt that within each campaign team there will be expert analysis taking place on a daily basis in relation to potential Scottish voters – whether those voters know it or not.

Each and every one of us generates vast amounts of information, or ‘digital shadows’, on a daily basis. Smartphones, social networks and other devices, including PCs and laptops, have allowed billions of people around the world to process huge amounts of information. We upload pictures, audio and personal information to Facebook, while Twitter records billions of online conversations between people across the planet. This information is creating opportunities for organisations to generate individual-specific profiles, uncovering patterns to produce insights into what makes each one of us tick.

Evidence from various polls and studies so far in the Scottish Referendum campaigns clearly show that Yes is winning the battle for online support through social media – but this lead doesn’t translate through to the opinion polls where Better Together is still significantly ahead.

With just over two months to go it will be fascinating to see both sides pick up the pace of their campaigns and see if they adopt any changes or new approaches that come from their analysis of voter data gleaned through these social media interactions. Doubtless there are insiders in each camp who are documenting everything that’s influencing their respective campaigns and we will hear about what worked and what didn’t in due course.

Until then it remains anyone’s guess as to which Scottish politician will send the first tweet to announce their victory once all the votes have been counted.

If you’d like to read more, see the full article by Martin Brown on Herald Scotland.

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