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Political campaigns don’t have control over your data like you think [EVENT]

At the Data-Crunched Democracy conference, topics included data voter modeling, personalized targeting, impact of data-mining on democracy, and the law of data-mining.

This is a guest post by Mary Kate Bonner, an attorney with the city's Law Department.

Don’t let your paranoia get the best of you. Campaigns don’t have the control over data that you think they might, said political data experts at Data-Crunched Democracy, a conference on big data in politics.

The University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication and the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication hosted the conference last Friday, held at Penn. Joseph Turow, Professor at Penn, and Daniel Kreiss, Assistant Professor at UNC, organized the conference. Topics included data voter modeling, personalized targeting, impact of data-mining on democracy, and the law of data-mining.

The conversations took place both in person and online at the same time, using the Twitter hashtag #datapolitics to engage throughout the day.

Panelists came from academia, industry, and politics.

Below, some takeaways from the event.

  • Campaign teams may have a lot of data, but they don’t always know how to use it. “Anybody can get data. It’s not big data; it’s big data science,” said Peter Pasi, Vice President of Collective Political during a discussion where members of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaign teams discussed challenges in gathering and using data to successfully target voters.
  • Campaigns should be required to follow three rules: use explicit opt-in; provide clear disclaimers; and provide data about an individual to that individual, said Micah Sifrey, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum and editor of techPresident. He started the discussion about whether data-mining is political speech by noting that such a question just diverted the conversation from the bigger issues of the effect of data-mining, specifically with respect to privacy and power.
  • “I love every one of you in this room, but I don’t really care about you as an individual, “ said Brent McGoldrick, former Director of Advertising Analytics for the Romney-Ryan campaign and Managing Director for FTI Consulting, cautioning that the public needs to check its paranoia a bit, noting both themes of big distrust and big narcissism in a discussion about on the impact of data-mining and voter targeting on the democratic process.
  • Campaigns have lots of data from many sources, but no efficient way of organizing data, no full-proof tracking of its use, and no solid way of understanding it. Instead, there are just a lot of “messy buckets” sitting around that they don’t know what to do with. Ethan Roeder, former Director of Data for Obama for America and Executive Director at New Organizing Institute, agreed that paranoia is misplaced: The Obama campaign did not have nearly the control over data that some seem to believe. 

The day ended with more questions than at the start. Journalists and politicians are still at odds. The public doesn’t trust anyone. Privacy and speech continue to trade off. And big data, with all its messiness, isn’t going anywhere. So everyone better hop on and help guide the train or get run over.

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