Categorized | Scottish Independence, World

Big Data And Elections: Where Better Together Is Going Wrong

For those outside the technology world, “Big Data” is a poorly understood buzzword which has become a part of everyday life


The term – broadly understood as data sets which are too large and complex for normal software – is now everywhere, from debates about the future of banking to healthcare. For example, Google has claimed to better predict flu outbursts than The Center for Disease Control, just by analysing what the company’s masses of users are searching for. As a source of ongoing discovery and analysis, proponents argue that Big Data can benefit both businesses and humanity.

Politics has sat up and taken notice. Barack Obama’s 2008 election win was widely accredited as a data-driven campaign, firmly establishing Big Data as an indispensible political tool. Indeed, things have come a long way since Ronald Reagan’s groundbreaking use of behavioural scientists in the sixties. Today computer scientists rule the nest, with Dan Wagner’s use of algorithms in Obama’s 2012 re-election only underscoring this.

The need to accurately predict voters’ intentions is now a science rather than an art and moreover, one which has a global marketplace. Labour has just acquired David Axelrod (Obama’s former cyber-strategist) whilst the Tories have an Australian (Lynton Crosby) and the Liberal Democrats, a South African (Ryan Coetzee).

Again, this revolution is not a play thing of the West; Big Data is reshaping modern politics around the world. Looking to India’s ongoing elections, the touted success of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also being attributed to its harnessing of Big Data. As Professor Amit Sheth commented on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Naredrea Modi, he is “perhaps one of the most tech-savvy politicians in the world and certainly the most active in India”. The mining of real-time data, encompassing voters concerns and sentiments, is fuelling the party’s ability to improve effectiveness on the ground, from door knocking to social media.

Shifting to a nationalist vote closer to home, these technological advances have also been central to the Scottish referendum. The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) voter database, Activate, was crucial to its 2007 and 2011 electoral successes – the latter of which was so overwhelming, Alex Salmond reputedly muttered “f*** me” as results came through. Excusing Salmond’s French (no doubt a Freudian slip to the Auld Alliance) the bigger point remains that politicians no longer just want to appeal to voters: they want to know everything about you as a consumer, from family type to property value. The Activate smartphone App has been a cherry on top, both a nod to the importance of social media and the young.

In response the pro-UK Better Together campaign, responded by splashing out on shiny new Patriot software, an import from the Obama campaign of 2008. Patriot is similarly research focused and aims to target the undecided franchise. In parallels to the SNP’s Activate, Patriot identifies lifestyle indicators (such as house prices) and then links fence-sitting voters with activists of similar age or with similar social media friends. Both sides therefore acknowledge that paper leaflets are becoming a thing of the past.

Yet with the Yes Campaign only seeming to gather momentum in the polls, where is it all going wrong for Alistair Darling’s Better Together? They too have done their innovation homework and everything seems fine on paper. However, given the indisputable lack of connect between Darling’s movement and the people, the finger can only look beyond technology to the leaders themselves.

Writing in the Financial Times, Richard Waters calls this the ‘human moment’. Although referencing the impact of Big Data upon companies, his point is directly transferable: “No matter how impressive the technology, it is only as good as the people who use it”. This point becomes especially acute in a debate of nationalism. Notions of independence and ‘liberation’ speak to the heart (or gut), while Better Together has rather targeted the mind. Much of Darling’s rhetoric has revolved around the doom and gloom of ‘what if’ Scotland goes it alone, much to the consternation of other Scottish supporters of the UK such as Charles Kennedy. In short, all this data and number crunching has propped up an almighty cry of negativity, rather than igniting an effective campaign of what opportunities the UK holds for Scotland. At present, Alex Salmond is laughing most.

This disconnect between the data and franchise raises a second point for consideration – the dichotomy of correlation versus causation. That is to say, what is the use of locating statistical patterns in political data if we cannot understand what they mean, if anything? This is a common dilemma in Big Data analysis and certainly, gauging political spectrum from property value sounds dangerously like judging a book by its cover. Although both sides are playing the same game, something has gone awry for Better Together and therefore the classic point of personality politics cannot be ignored. Things may be very different were the electorate willing to vote for a robot, but we are a revolution short of such a place. Call him a bully, heartfelt, calculating or empathetic, Salmond is simply better at talking to people and no software package will ever account for such interaction or characteristics.

With under five months to go until the referendum, Better Together will surely look to a greater pairing of technological innovation with an emotional relationship which speaks to the hearts of those Scots who feel most Scottish when British. Being on people’s smartphones, tablets and PCs is paramount in 2014, but means little if not fused with a human touch.

Image courtesy of infocux Technologies

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About Michael Gray

Michael Gray has an MA in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St Andrews and was selected as a Bobby Jones Scholar to Emory University. Michael has since worked in technology communications in London and is beginning a postgraduate degree in Broadcast Journalism at The Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

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