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 that 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?

With the rise of Google, Facebook, and online advertising, more data is being collected than ever before. This data is infinitely valuable — but only if it can be properly analyzed. Often, there’s so much data, it’s impossible for humans to work with — even with the data analytics tools which have been used in the past.

Big data technology is a catch-all term for algorithms and other software designed to sift through and analyze massive data sets — more data than a human statistician or data scientist could ever hope to analyze without computer assistance.

The technology is sometimes combined with artificial intelligence-powered pattern-finding software that helps analysts tease tease out unconventional or hard-to-spot patterns. These patterns are then used to build predictive models — like, for example, a model that predicts who you’ll vote for based on your location, demographics information and your 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, as well as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a number of high-profile data breaches — big data and electoral politics is not a new combination. The Washington Post dubbed Barack Obama the “Big Data President” after his 2012 campaign, which 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 this — 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.

Some of this information comes from the Census Bureau. Some of it comes from commercial sources, like Facebook’s and Google’s online advertising platforms — which have, at this point, been collecting information about what consumers are interested in for years. This information is supposed to be private — but as the many privacy scandals and data breaches of the past decade have demonstrated, it isn’t difficult for private 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. Instead of campaigning to win over for the entire public, they argue, political campaigns are now hyper-focused on voters that are the most likely to align with their candidate. The change has led to a new form of campaigning where candidates may dismiss voters altogether if the model reports that they’re not likely to vote for them.

Concerns About Big Data and 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 was then used to drive the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

At the same time, information security is a challenge faced across multiple industries — from finance to healthcare. While there have been no reported instances of stolen data being used in presidential campaigns yet, 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.

Future of Big Data in 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.