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Hacking the Electorate: Data's role in Changing Minds

Your daily experience is growing more tailored. Data science is effecting how you shop, how you search, how you work, and in this past election, how you vote.


Last election’s innovations were as visible as possible, but this time around you probably didn't even know they were there.

The 2012 Obama campaign used vast amounts of voter data and public data along with “Project Narwhal” and “Project Dreamcatcher” to target voters like never before. This is the first time we have seen big data repositories of this scale used for voter targeting, and the campaign’s semi-secretive data science initiatives were a big part of president Obama’s arsenal as he defeated Romney.

Back in 2008, Obama revolutionized political interaction on social media. By creating tools enabling his supporters to take twitter and facebook by storm, Obama created a visible social movement enticing others to join in. Now the question is whether the Democratic party can strike gold twice.

Last election’s innovations were as visible as possible, but this time around you probably didn't even know they were there.

“Project Narwhal”

Although it sounds more like a part of the Dharma Initiative than an actual organization, “Project Narwhal” was one of two large scale projects being run by the 2012 Obama Campaign.

project narwhal 

Narwhal's goal was quite simple: build a unified political profile of each individual voter. Large scale campaigns gather data about the electorate in many different way for different purposes, and this leads to a scattered understanding of voters. Narwal took all of the data, from tweets to donations and everything in between, and creating unified individual profiles of each voter.  

Back in 2008, data wasn’t managed collectively, “Every unit within the campaign had their little fiefdom and a chief. People were very proprietary about their data,” An Obama 2008  staffer said. “They started as separate systems because that’s the way it works. No one ever thought System B would get useful data for System A—and we weren’t planning for the long run from the beginning.”

But 2012 is different, full data integration in real time allowed the campaign to target voters in ways previously only imagined. Few people agree fully with Obama’s platform, but with Narwhal working in the background, every message you saw from the campaign featured just the policies you loved. Where you disagreed, you never knew.

The project also helped logistically; last time around when volunteers canvassed neighborhoods they simply went door to door. But in 2012, armed with detailed maps about neighborhood residents, canvassers skipped the hardcore supporters on each side and got right to those illusive undecided voters.


“Project Dreamcatcher”

Hopes and dreams, and fears and frustrations, these are the marketers goldmine. They are the difference between telling you why you should buy something and making you feel that you need to buy it. You see it in the change from a laundry list of features to making a product sexy. This change in marketing is the goal of “Project Dreamcatcher”.

Starting with the 2008 election the Obama campaign has gathered masses of unstructured data. From tweets about the president and his opponents to stories supporters post on his website, this data represents a treasure trove of usable knowledge, and it is this knowledge that Dreamcatcher is after.

The campaign is being particularly closed mouthed about this one, stating that, “We have no plans to read out our data/analytics/voter contact strategy. That just telegraphs to the other guys what we're up to.” But as best as we can deduce Dreamcatcher relies on large scale text analysis to glean voters hopes and fears, and understand their positions on various political policies.

Those involved with the project say it analyzes text in an effort to unlock whole areas of personal information that has yet to be collected or put to use. The dream is to enable better decision making on which voters to target and how to do it.

“It’s not about us trying to leverage the information we have to better predict what people are doing. It’s about us being better listeners,” a campaign official said. “When a million people are talking to you at once it’s hard to listen to everything, and we need text analytics and other tools to make sense of what everyone is saying in a structured way.”

What is all Means

Although this article focuses on Obama’s campaign, you need to realize the Romney camp tried to do the same thing. The data mining of politics and personalization of political messages is just part of the larger trend in todays society. Everything is becoming tailored to your tastes, the ads you see are carefully tailored and the emails you receive are tailored too, down to the punctuation. It is making the world more to your liking, or in other words making the world more user friendly.

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