By Steve Parkhurst
I was recently interviewed for this piece by business and IT writer Debra Donston-Miller about Big Data and 2016. I’ll have more to say about the subject soon enough, but for now, enjoy this article.
By Debra Donston-Miller, May 7, 2013
If big data was something of a secret weapon during the presidential election of 2012, it promises to loom large as we run up to 2016.
There’s no doubt that big data is playing an increasingly big role in business, politics, healthcare, education, retail and numerous other industries. With the right tools and expertise, organizations can slice and dice data to reveal trends and other information that will inform decisions about future strategy and direction.
“[Big data] is the idea that we are finally able to do with a huge body of data things that were impossible to achieve when working with smaller amounts, to uncover to new insight and create new forms of economic value,” said Kenneth Cukier, co-author with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think,” and data editor of The Economist. “So, for example, the reason we have self-driving cars or very good computer translation is not because of improvements in processors or algorithms, though they are useful, but because we have vastly more data from which the computer can calculate the probability that a traffic light is red and not green, or which a word in one language is a suitable substitute for a word in another.”
During the 2012 election, big data was used to great advantage—namely, by Barack Obama, in his re-election campaign.
A November 2012 article in Time magazine, “Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win, reported, “Data-driven decision making played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. … In politics, the era of big data has arrived.”
Cukier said campaigns have always been run on information, but in 2012 big data helped optimize that information and activities around it.
“Obama’s data scientists made pioneering innovations on applying big data to politics,” said Cukier. ”They learned through testing what the optimal sum was when requesting a donation. Every piece of promotional literature online and offline is tested before it goes live at scale. They micro target down to subgroups of the population that were otherwise not picked up by campaigns in the past because it was hard to get granular information on those groups and what moved them to vote a certain way. As a result, campaigns try to tailor their activities down the seemingly ‘individual’ level — not broad, lumpy categories like the ‘soccer moms’ used in Clinton’s campaigns in the 1990s.”
The role of big data will only increase in the 2016 presidential election, with practitioners using technology to hone in on data much more granularly than ever before. In addition, say experts, the use of big data will overlap with social media and other platforms.
“For the 2016 presidential election, we can expect big data to play a much more central role than ever before,” said Cukier. “[We’ll see] micro-targeting of individuals and narrow subgroups of the population, tailored messages over social media platforms, instant feedback loops to the campaign about what works and what doesn’t to move voters, and data collected from the private sector to build predictive models of what works best for fundraising, activating the base of supporters and the get-out-the-vote activities.”
Pay attention to some of the hotly contested issues and the preparation for 2014 Senate elections, and you will see big data at work and a preview of what’s to come in 2016.
“There will be data testing in the run-up to 2014,” said Steve Parkhurst, political consultant, GPH Consulting. “There have already been debates this year on issues like the sequester, the Second Amendment and immigration, for example, and I’m sure the big data databases are filling up with usable data. The data drill-down is no doubt tracking where voters are looking and what those voters are saying, especially online.”
All of this is not to say that the process will be easy. Analysis of big data is a highly complex task, and at this point in time it requires a very specialized—and often expensive–skill set.
“Not just everyone can set up a big data shop,” said Parkhurst. “The people who are really good at it are going to charge a premium price.”
Luckily, technology providers are heeding the call for products and services that can tame the big data beast. Indeed, said Cukier, two of the biggest barriers to big data are narrow thinking and a dearth of leadership.
“The only real obstacle is one of mindset,” said Cukier. “We need to think creatively about what we can do with the data and how important it is. It takes both ingenuity and leadership.”