Political IT: How campaigns mine the Web - part 2

Data-driven campaigning goes mainstream.

on voters interests, hobbies, lifestyles and political leanings. (See "What politicians know about you" in part 1 of this series.) Organizations are grappling with how to best exploit these vast troves of unstructured data without getting burned.

[See part 1 of this story.]

The use of unstructured data can help organizations micro-target to specific groups of swing voters and identify messaging that works. But integrating all of that online voter data with traditional offline sources is proving difficult, the return isn't always worth the investment and then there's the creepiness factor: Outreach efforts can backfire if voters feel that their privacy has been violated.

Catalist is a consortium of progressive organizations that maintains a 500 terabyte database of information describing both registered and unregistered voters in the U.S. Like other data aggregators in the political space, the organization is bringing in large volumes of unstructured user data from the Web to match up each citizen's online persona with their related demographic data and voter records.

   John Simpson
"What we've seeing this cycle is the integration of online with offline," as well as incorporating different data sources, says John Simpson, director of media at Blue State Digital.

"What we've seeing this cycle is the integration of online with offline," as well as incorporating different data sources, from voter history to donation history to general consumer data, says John Simpson, director of media at Blue State Digital, a digital strategy agency that specializes in analytics.

Campaigns and advocacy groups are pulling in financial data from aggregators such as Experian and consumer purchase data from multiple sources and tying it all back to voter registration data. The integration of online data is done through cookie-base matching. "How that gets matched up is not clear. It's a black box," Simpson says, adding that "the quality and level of confidence in that matching, to me, is debatable."

Matching up the data is indeed a difficult task, agrees Cathy Duvall, political director at the Sierra Group, which combines its own member data with information provided by Catalist. Online data tends to be tied to a user-generated @name alias, as in the case of Twitter; shielded by privacy policies, as with Facebook; or associated only by a cookie ID. In some cases, she says, the data may never be properly associated with the correct individual.

But even if all that is possible, Catalist CEO Laura Quinn isn't sure her firm could handle all that data. "Big data is the bigger challenge so far as the amount of data we can associate," she says. It's not the amount of data that's at issue, she explains, but the level of difficulty involved with matching up large volumes of data that have missing name and/or address elements. The investment in additional infrastructure to do all of that processing couldn't be justified by the potential success rate, she says.

Many of the data mining and microtargeting approaches in use today were first put to work in 2008, says Patrick Hynes, president of Hynes Communications, a consultancy specializing in online and new media communications strategy that currently serves as an adviser to the Romney campaign. "Nobody has invented anything new apart from the fact that it's been digitized, made mobile and put online. The difference is there's significantly more data out there because people are making more information about themselves available online," and that allows for more sophisticated targeting.

Before, campaigns would segment the electorate by voting precinct or broad demographic groups, such as women. With richer data, messaging can focus on, for example, married women of a specific age and income level, with specific interests, who live in major metro areas in swing states. "You can get a rough estimate of the Wal-Mart mom, which is the key demographic in this cycle," Hynes says.

Blaise Hazelwood, principal at Grassroots Targeting, is a microtargeting specialist whose clients include the Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom she assisted during the recent gubernatorial recall election. It's the psychographic data coming in from online sources that's changing the game, she argues. "We are better able to connect individuals with their online habits than ever before," and that data is very valuable for targeting. It's still difficult to match up offline and online personas but, she says, "There are companies out there that match up cookie IDs with personal information."

Tools are available today to match Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook profiles to voter files, says Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage DC, a firm that handles online advertising and analytics work for the Republican National Committee and individual Republican candidates. "Facebook and Twitter have become a repository for consumer data that's unequalled in history in terms of consumer intent, preferences and political affiliation," he says. Facebook isn't an open database, and user privacy settings restrict access in some cases.

Analyzing social data, including likes, will be the next wave. "Will people who like Lady Gaga be more likely to vote for Obama?" This is the kind of analysis all of the major campaigns will be doing, he says.

Big data, analytics and mobile apps are enabling smaller political campaigns and advocacy groups to be more effective when it comes to winning over voters and raising money. Is data mining by candidates a privacy concern?

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