How Big Data Technology is Used in Elections

November 12, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


Over the past few years, data has become one of the most valuable commodities. Advertisers, corporations and political campaigns now have access to detailed, fine-grained data and models. Those allow them to target the individuals and groups most likely to respond to their messaging. As a result, big data technology is changing the way politicians campaign.

What is Big Data Technology?

With the rise of Google, Facebook and online advertising, tech giants are collecting more data than ever before. This data is infinitely valuable — but only if someone can properly analyze it. The sheer volume of data is impossible to work with — even with conventional data analytics tools.

Big data technology is a catch-all term for algorithms and software designed to analyze large quantities of data quickly. They analyze more data than a human statistician or data scientist could ever hope to analyze without computer assistance.

The technology sometimes combines with artificial intelligence-powered pattern-finding software that helps analysts tease out unconventional or hard-to-spot patterns. These patterns help them build predictive models. For example, a model might predict who you’ll vote for based on your location, demographic details and interests.

How Big Data Is Reshaping Elections

While discussions of big data, elections and data privacy have become more prominent in the last few years. Spurred by increased use of big data by campaigners and a number of high-profile data breaches, big data and electoral politics is not a new combination.

The Washington Post even dubbed Barack Obama the “Big Data President” after his 2012 campaign. It was hugely data-driven and relied on the import of new digital advertising techniques, like micro-targeting, to secure the election. Because of the strategy’s huge success, many high-profile campaigns since have also decided to run highly data-driven campaigns.

The basic idea behind using big data in electoral campaigns is simple. If you have enough data, you can predict how people will vote. This data can be about a wide range of topics — the books voters read, the shows they watch or the fields they work in. Previously, this data either wasn’t available or wasn’t being captured. This has changed over the past few years.

Much of this information comes from the Census Bureau. Some of it comes from commercial sources like Facebook’s and Google’s advertising platforms. At this point, they’ve collected data on consumers’ interests for years — which should be private. However, as the many privacy scandals and data breaches of the past decade demonstrate, it isn’t difficult for sensitive information to fall into the wrong hands.

Some data scientists and political analysts believe the tech has caused a shift in how political campaigns happen. They argue political are no longer campaigning to win over the entire public. Instead, they now hyper-focus on voters that are the most likely to align with their candidate. The change has led to a new form of campaigning where candidates dismiss voters altogether if the model reports that they’re not likely to vote for them.

Concerns About Big Data and Voters’ Privacy

Privacy experts are also concerned about the impact big data electoral strategies could have on data privacy. In 2018, journalists discovered that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign, had access to private information about more than 50 million Facebook users. That information drove the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

At the same time, information security is a challenge across multiple industries. While reporters haven’t found any instances of presidential campaigns leveraging stolen data yet, it’s still possible. Facebook has been the subject of multiple data breaches — and in a world where Facebook data is valuable to political operatives, it’s not hard to imagine campaigns being tempted by stolen data.

Will Big Data Technology Influence Future Elections?

Campaigns will continue looking for better voter data. Even if these campaigns risk unnecessarily writing off undecided voters, voter data will remain a powerful tool in identifying which voters will be easiest to activate — those most likely to vote, to canvass and to donate to the campaign.

In the future, the debate over data privacy is likely to continue as well. But so long as companies collect data, political campaigns will want that data to build better models, and take some of the unpredictability out of campaigning for office.