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Data Mining and Analytics in the Presidential Race – Sinister or Just Sensible?

A lot of media reports have been surfacing lately about “secretive” data mining activities taking place within the presidential campaign. Many articles paint the efforts with a sinister caste, implying that underhanded invasions of privacy are taking place.

But to any seasoned data professional, data mining is a discovery tool that pulls nuggets of insight out of mountains of data. For any business that wants to get ahead in today’s hyper-competitive global economy, advanced data mining and analysis is not a luxury, it is a necessity. As USA Today’s Jack Gillum describes the Romney campaign’s data analytics:

“The project shows that the same strategies corporations use to influence the way we shop and make buying decisions are now being used to influence presidential elections. The same personal information that we give away, often unwittingly when we swipe our credit cards or log into Facebook, is now being analyzed by presidential candidates.”

Data mining and analysis isn’t just a Republican activity. The Obama campaign is also going full-bore with its own analytics against Big Data drawn from social media and other parts of the web. As a Slashdot post by Nick Kolakowski – and earlier report in Politico – suggests that the Democrats are leveraging Big Data in a big way as well:

“The president’s campaign managers had used Facebook and other online sources to assemble a database of potential voters, the better to apparently design campaign messages for very specific demographics…. Obama’s election managers have hired a mix of digital directors, software engineers and statistics experts. ‘Obama for America is looking for Quantitative Media Analysts, Analytics Engineers, Battleground States Elections Analysts and Modeling Analysts,’ reads a want ad on the campaign’s Website. The goal: to create data processing pipelines, integrate new data into models, build tools, and generate reports.”

The main difference between the two campaigns is Romney’s organization is seeking to identify financial donors, while Obama’s organization seeks to extend its messaging. But the bottom line is that there are many excellent data management tools available to decision-makers to help organizations – in this case, campaigns — better reach constituents and get their messages out. If anything, they would be remiss if they did not take advantage of the power of Big Data analytics.

If the two campaigns want to really do things right, and ethically, and get the results they need, they need to adhere to many of the same best practices data managers and professionals have developed over the years:

Respect the tenets of data security and privacy:  Ensure that sensitive data is either encrypted or de-identified as it is moved or stored. This especially applies to internal staff as well as partners or contractors that work with the data.

Ensure that data is timely and of high quality: Data is coming in from many sources. Data managers need to ensure that the data is rationalized and well integrated.

Align with the goals of the business: As with any business, data professionals need to work closely with campaign managers to ensure that their work is well aligned with the requirements of the campaign. The data needs to be accessible, of course, via easy-to-digest dashboards or reports.

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