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Why Big Data Falls Short of Its Political Promise

by admin on October 2, 2012

Appeared on mashable.com on October 2d, 2012

 Big Data. The very syntax of it is so damn imposing. It promises such relentless accuracy. It inspires so much trust –- a cohering framework in a time of chaos.

Big Data is all the buzz in consumer marketing. And the pundits are jabbering about 2012 as the year of Big Data in politics, much as social media itself was the dizzying buzz in 2008. Four years ago, Obama stunned us with his use of the web to raise money, to organize, to get out the vote. Now it’s all about Big Data’s ability to laser in with drone-like precision on small niches and individual voters, picking them off one by one.

It in its simplest form, Big Data describes the confluence of two forces — one technological, one social. The new technological reality is the amount of processing power and analytics now available, either free or at no cost. Google has helped pioneer that; as Wired puts it, one of its tools, called Dremel, makes “big data small.”

 Big Data has a role beyond digital clairvoyance. It’s the role  of digital genotyping in the political realm.

This level of mega-crunchability is what’s required to process the amount of data now available online, especially via social networks like Facebook andTwitter. Every time we Like something, it’s recorded on some cosmic abacus in the sky.

Then there’s our browsing history, captured and made available to advertisers through behavioral targeting. Add to that available public records on millions of voters — political consultants and media strategists have the ability drill down as god-like dentists.

Website TechPresident describes the conventional wisdom of Big Data as it relates to elections:

… data is dominating both the study and practice of political campaigns. Most observers readily acknowledge that the 2012 presidential campaign will be decided by the outcome of a handful of battles in just a few key swing states — identified thanks to the reckoning of data scientists and pollsters.

There are two sides to the use of Big Data. One is predictive — Twitter has its own sentiment index, analyzing tweets as 140-character barometers. Other companies, like GlobalPoint, aggregate social data and draw algorithmic conclusions.

But Big Data has a role beyond digital clairvoyance. It’s the role of digital genotyping in the political realm. Simply find the undecided voters and then message accordingly, based on clever connections and peeled-back insights into voter belief systems and purchase behaviors. Find the linkages and exploit them. If a swing voter in Ohio watches 30 Rock and scrubs with Mrs. Meyers Geranium hand soap, you know what sites to find her on and what issues she cares about. Tell them that your candidate supports their views, or perhaps more likely, call out your opponent’s demon views on geranium subsidies.

Central to this belief is that the election won’t be determined by big themes but by small interventions. Big Data’s governing heuristic is that shards of insight about you and your social network will lead to a new era of micro-persuasion. But there are three fallacies that undermine this shiny promise.

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